Reviews Sharon Van Etten Tramp

Sharon Van Etten

Tramp

I’m not going to lie. I’m reaching a bit out of my comfort zone on reviewing this one. And, yes, the rating system is a bit skewed toward albums that fit into my more typical listening genres. In other words, it would take Sharon Van Etten a hell of an album to secure a high score. Tramp, her third release, has recently been gaining steam in the critics circles. It’s of a singer-songwriter variety, with a deeper instrumentation that escapes that coffee house vibe but is still clearly reliant on the dual forces of Van Etten’s voice and her lyricism.

As for that, her voice holds a touching aesthetic that is relatable and warm, sometimes leaning toward a mumbled drawl, as in “Give Out.” Van Etten chooses a register and sticks with it, utilizing guest vocalists to fill in the harmonies rather than ranging her own voice. Because she often sticks with the same tone, there’s a bit of a dreary sleepiness to the songs that gives a hint of melancholy that is absent in the lyrics themselves. It’s not to say her lyrics are joyful stuff, they take an introspective but practical viewpoint rather than drawing on overstatement and reliance on emotional adjectives. While her songs are typically about downer moments, there’s an even keel approach that, with the right musical backdrop, such as the slide guitars in “Serpents,” give an almost positive, keep-on-trying outlook that plays well with the lyrical focus on vulnerability and confession. This is clearly one of the standouts on the record, building in energy and utilizing a nice rhythmic backdrop from the drums to revitalize the record when it starts to feel too drab, and it shows an ability to work within a band context to expand the scope of a song. The plodding guitar line that leads “We Are Fine” is another positive moment, and it shows that Van Etten is at her best when she’s being influenced by the musicians around her. Similarly, “All I Can” opens up when Van Etten expands her range a little, and the piano backdrop in “Leonard” complements her voice well, playing on the beauty but using the instrumentation to her advantage by offering a fullness of sound.

Unfortunately, this uptick drops straight back into the lull with “In Line.” The record, while it has its bright spots, often drops into boring territory. The mix curiously brings the music to a level near that of Van Etten’s voice, most likely trying to capture something atmospheric but it often sounds droning instead, with nothing jumping out and not enough tonal variety to keep such a presence. It also detracts from the lyrics. The fact that her humming to close out “All I Can” is one of the more vocally emphatic points is reflective that there’s just not that much variety across the record. It’s likely that Van Etten’s primary audience is already aware of these factors and doesn’t find them as detrimental to the overall product, but I just can’t get into this from start to finish despite a few bright spots.

6.1 / 10Loren
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