With each new release, Sharon Van Etten comes into sharper focus. It’s a quality shared by her cover art: her 2009 debut Because I Was In Love featured a hand-drawn woman looking for a hand up; 2010’s Epic portrayed Van Etten as upright but worn, melting into a hundred directions at once. Now comes Tramp, her debut for Jagjaguwar, a record that shows Van Etten still masked in shadows, but this time she’s confidently staring back. That confidence is a welcome addition, but look again and you’ll see that face only half-turned. She might be ready to stand up, yet she’s stuck at a fork in the road.
Because I Was In Love nearly ghettoized Van Etten in the singer-songwriter field, but Epic was a nice surprise. Plugging in with the help of a backing band, she stoked a spark that lurked in the dark corners of her first release and built a big-sounding record that blurred the line between folk and rock. Tramp follows that impulse, using a who’s-who of indie musicians to add color here and there. There’s the Walkmen’s Matt Barrick steadying the fiery, withering gaze of “Serpents” with a turbulent backbeat. There’s Beirut’s Zach Condon sharing the vocal and emotional load on “We Are Fine,” a glimpse into an unfolding anxiety attack. There’s Julianna Barwick’s gauzy voice buoying the lurching “In Line.” And there’s the National’s Aaron Dessner capturing all the inspiration in moody tones, but still making sure Van Etten’s voice is the main attraction.
That voice is still a major draw, and Van Etten’s added new tools to the vocal arsenal. It can be flighty and obtuse, like on the jagged opener “Warsaw.” But she can also bring it back down to earth, using it as a weapon instead. “You enjoy sucking on drinks / So I will fall asleep with someone other than you,” she hisses on “Serpents,” delivering each blow with venom but also fatigue. Those shades of gray populate the entire record. “You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city / Or why I’ll need to leave,” goes the chorus of “Give Out.” As Van Etten can’t make up her mind, the music behind her sits on the edge of a ballad and a simmering explosion.
If the first half delicately toes this line, the second part of Tramp slowly unfolds into a sort of pseudo-acceptance. The gut-punching rockers fade away, leaving just Van Etten and a series of measured ruminations. “Try not to beg / Too much to be” becomes a rallying cry on “All I Can.” She continuously sinks into depth after depth, only to pick herself up by letting it all out. The instrumentation stays out of the way, as if instinctively understanding the clarity that’s needed to combat each dark thought. Van Etten lets her voice carry everything to the conclusion.
However, that nakedness leaves a toll. Whereas Epic rose and fell at every turn, Tramp plods along with interesting detours but it never hits her previously dizzying heights. Van Etten has spoken about how she’s been moving from couch to couch over the past year as her career has taken off. That restlessness comes across in the music; there’s no solid ground to anchor the emotional grayness. It can be tiresome in one continuous sitting, but the honesty of each individual song is what sets Van Etten apart from many of her contemporaries.
Tramp inhabits this ghostly middle ground, alternately bursting out and receding back. For Van Etten, it’s a logical next step in her upward trajectory. She’s opening every door in the room, unsure of where to turn but documenting that doubt with piercing ease.