With a voice like Sharon Van Etten’s, it’s easy to overlook any weaknesses. That seemed to be the case with last year’s debut, Because I Was In Love, wherein her raw vocal power carried much of the album despite its monochromatic tone. On her sophomore effort, Epic, Van Etten wisely expands her instrumentation and songwriting. The results might be mixed, but it offers a few glimpses to where her future musical path might take her.
At seven songs and just over half an hour, Epic might seem unworthy of its name at first glimpse, but Van Etten packs a lot into these songs. Love was almost entirely an acoustic affair, but it featured that arresting voice: Weathered, sympathetic, emotive, and dynamic, it carries most of her songs, even her lesser ones. And in the case of Epic, Van Etten jumps further out of the singer-songwriter pack by trying on new hats with the help of a solid cast of musicians. Cat Martino, Jessica Larrabee, and Meg Baird and Greg Weeks of the folk band Espers offer backing vocals and extra instrumentation. Producer Brian McTear deserves a nod, as well; he retains Van Etten’s poignancy amid all the additional voices, drums, and distorted electric guitars.
Disappointingly, though, the record takes a little while to open up. Both “A Crime” and “Peace Sign” sound a few ideas away from being truly finished. As they stand, they’re both awkward sketches to start out the album. In fact, the pacing and order of Epic is odd. That shouldn’t matter in our digital era, but when listening all the way through, the album becomes distracting.
Yet these hiccups are forgotten in the excitement of hearing Van Etten stretch her songwriting capabilities. The barroom balladeering of “Save Yourself” fits her smoky voice perfectly, as if she’s been a straight-up country singer all this time. McTear gets another production nod for keeping the between-take banter intact and loosening up the proceedings. Van Etten sounds confident and comfortable, even slyly intoning, “Try and make me feel/ Like I’m your number one, every other one/ Well, shit, get real.” Her darkness is still very much intact, but it’s filtered through melodic, almost-pop songs like “Don’t Do It” that demonstrate her ability to inhabit these various styles and make them her own.
Oddly enough, Epic shines brightest on the two songs that are the most similar to each other and Van Etten’s folk past. Both “DsharpG” and “Love More” feature a foot-pumped organ called a harmonium as the centerpiece. The resultant drones in each of the songs are chilly but earthy, and she does wonders with the skeletal framework, recalling her past work while carving a new musical path. However, “Love More” builds to such a climax that it emotionally obliterates the preceding six songs. And therein lies a final problem: Van Etten doesn’t realize what an astounding grand slam she has with “Love More,” so the surrounding music pales in comparison when listened all together. She needs, ironically enough, more epic songs to match its intensity. As it stands, it’s one genius scene tacked onto the end of a pretty good film.
As an album, Epic is disjointed in places, but as a collection of songs it’s strong enough. Ultimately, this sounds like something of a holding pattern for the Van Etten. She has all of these divergent ideas swimming around, but there is little doubt that she will be able to harness these in the near future and create that lasting masterpiece she has lurking in her fingertips.