This review was originally published at Listen Before You Buy.
The release of Sharon Van Etten’s third album, “Tramp”, couldn’t have come at a better time, as it arrives almost simultaneously at the same time as another newer female musician releases her first, yet highly anticipated album, that is Lana Del Rey’s “Born To Die”. I couldn’t help but note some interesting contrasts and comparisons between the two, as I recently read a piece over at Spin that defended Lana and I felt it impossible to keep silent on the subject.
But first, lets take a moment to truly acknowledge the victory that this record is. Van Etten plays out imaginary scenarios in ‘Give Out’ like we all do when we really really love and we wonder if it would kill us or heal us to just go for it. She both heals and kills in this record, taking us to the very edge of heartbreak but also soothing us, ironing the cracks in our hearts back into a whole with hopeful songs like ‘We Are Fine’.
Van Etten has a haunting voice, and she clearly writes from a place of pain, love, and courage, but even that isn’t what makes this album so spectacular. Van Etten is us, she’s our culture and where we live, she reflects everything that’s wrong with Brooklyn, America, England, Asia or anywhere. She confronts the confusion and misunderstanding we face in life, the evil in people in ‘Serpents’ and the sad control we allow people to have over us in ‘Ask’. In short, Van Etten achieves the kind of impact and cultural critique on this album that Lana Del Rey supposedly wants to create. Van Etten actually possesses the experience and technique to portray the problems of this modern age in an artful, compelling way instead of resorting to insipid cliches and washed-up sexual fantasies.
Drawing on other avant-garde type female vocalists like Cat Power and Joanna Newsom, Van Etten dips and swings through society’s woes as effortlessly as a bird in the sky. Both ‘Kevin’s’ and ‘Leonard’ are non-surreptitiously dedicated to men, and the album itself is called “Tramp”, invoking a whole host of feminine stereotypes and connotations along with the traveling, misplaced and impoverished. The ignored and doorway leaning of the culture – the ones that can’t be made to fit anywhere really and tumble around instead.
As most of Van Etten’s songs revolve around love and relationships, at first glance it may seem that this record is just another slice of lovelorn rock, to be happily consumed by hipsters in the know enough to have heard of Van Etten. However, just a few spins will reveal that she packs much more of a punch than your typical heartbroken singer. The cascading intricacies of her voice and the barren night elements of her songs combine to make the listener simultaneously feel lonely and comforted. It is this dichotomy in her music that I keep returning to, the double edged sword that Van Etten points at her listeners, and then uses on herself. She happily cuts her heart open simply to create, to sing and to contribute to whatever message musicians try to get through to us.
Lana claims to want to have something to say to girls and the world, but what does she talk about? Video games, Diet Mountain Dew, how much she loves (hates) her fame and money… the same senseless subjects that Madonna, Britney, Christina and all the rest have dallied with until it seems as though any female vocalist who becomes famous inevitably turns to this subject matter. Beating a horse that is already dead, Del Rey just contributes to the already prevalent and fucked up ideas girls have about how they should look and what they should care about. As Sharon would say, “It hurts too much to laugh about it, man”.
Van Etten’s album is subjective, eclectic, a discussion of her life and failed love, an attempt to move on, a conversation, a human reaction, laughing, waiting, hesitating, coming of age… in short it is a reflection of a human being experiencing life. What more is music supposed to be? Sadly, “Tramp” will remain perhaps slightly above the tide between indie and well-known, and soon be swept under the waves to reside under the sea, while baby-princess Lana Del Rey will still paper the sites of Spin and Fader and the bedroom walls of pubescent teen boys.
I for one, will be lip singing to ‘Magic Chords’ as I walk to the subway. I still believe in magic and the power of a chord, and I still believe someday the world will become a place that venerates the true artists like Sharon Van Etten. I’m not including any streams to any songs because I think this is a record you should go buy. Immediately. It is that good. You know how.