Sharon Van Etten's third album, Tramp, was recorded during a period of transience, in which Van Etten drifted from place to place with no true "home"; hence the album title. This wandering vagueness already lent itself to the drifting, open soundscapes of 2010's Epic, a slow-burning stunner that established Van Etten as a strong new songwriting voice. The primary constant during this period was a series of recording sessions with the National's Aaron Dessner, which led to her beautiful new album.
Whereas Epic had a more haphazard, bedroom project-type sound, Van Etten and Dessner have teamed up to craft a record bursting with meticulous sonic details, while also leaving plenty of space sonically and lyrically for contemplation. Most songs settle into the same broodingly melancholic feel of her other work, sometimes slowing to the point where it feels like the music will simply sputter out in its tracks. This only enhances the contrast with her "rock" numbers, of which one, "Serpents," is arguably the best song she's ever written. After a few listens, the song starts to feel almost unbearably intense, circling around a swirl of memories and accusations with no clear beginning or no end. After all, her lyric goes, "In time, you'll stay frozen in time" (or is it, "In time you'll stay, frozen in time"?), which makes the song genuinely haunting and unnerving, all amplified with Dessner's searing two-note guitar lick and a rolling drum track from the Walkmen's Matt Barrick.
Barrick is but one of the guests Van Etten enlists on this new collection (he adds a booming, yet glacially-paced, drum track to the eerie "Magic Chords"). Other guests include Julianna Barwick and members of Wye Oak and Doveman, all of whom make subtle contributions that in no way detract from Van Etten as the central focus. The most overt collaboration is "We Are Fine," a duet with Beirut's Zach Condon, meant to signify an exchange of reassurances between lovers. I wasn't sure about this track at first, as I wondered if Condon's voice spoiled the vibe of the album, but the sincerity of the sentiments won me over. Van Etten's recorded work is often stunningly sparse and lonely, and it's a little heartwarming to hear another (literal) voice offer some comfort and support.
Van Etten's lyrics are largely unpretentious; rather than focusing on flowery language, she tends to build her songs around escalating, evolving linguistic ideas, anchored with terse, memorable refrains. For example, at the beginning of "Ask," she states that she needs "more than a flowers and letters man." This is clever enough on its own, but later, as the song draws to a close, and she repeats the line "it hurts too much to laugh about it," she adds a single use of "man" at the end of the line, which might indicate an idealized partner, or it might just be an under-her-breath admonition. In the tentative "Give Out," she looks out rather than looking down, holds out instead of holding on, before finally giving out rather than giving up. In "Leonard," she adds to her sentiments with each chorus, starting with "I'm bad," progressing to "I'm bad at loving," and culminating with "I'm bad at loving you." Like Bill Callahan, Van Etten is capable of writing words that invert their own meaning, sometimes within a single line or stanza, an intriguing rhetorical device that keeps her songs captivating.
Despite its occasionally bleak outlook, Tramp is a strong next step for Sharon Van Etten, an album that should help her gain an even larger audience, while allowing her to continue building confidence to tackle the serpents in her own mind.