Sharon Van Etten Escalates to Dramatic Heights on ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’
Sharon Van Etten has always had a voice and style that pierces instantly through the superficial veneer of typical contemporary music, and makes an immediate and profound impact. For most of her career, she’s stood behind a guitar, and made a name for herself with somewhat folk stylings, although such a description is reductive. Ever the adventurist artist, she’s gone deep and dark on her latest album “Remind Me Tomorrow,” teaming up with celebrity producer John Congleton. It’s a venture into an entirely new sonic dimension, yet still done with all of the trademark traits that Van Etten fans have come to love.
Opener “I Told You Everything” achieves much of its impact from its minimalism and use of open space. Van Etten’s vocals sound as if stretched out to emphasize their meaning, whereas the simplicity and repetitiveness of her lyrics add a primal character. Once percussion enters the mix, it all sounds a bit angular and jagged, in a delightful way. And of course, there’s Van Etten’s distinctive voice. “No One’s Easy to Love” strikes as a surprise with it’s uncharacteristic, nearly industrial percussion and bassline. Over this backdrop, Van Etten’s languid vocals sprawl out, and drag things around sluggishly, recalling the likes of Thom Yorke. The song unfolds into twinkling keys and strings, and takes on whole new proportions by the end.
“Memorial Day” creates an immersive atmosphere, with vocal snippets providing a backdrop, and dense, dark instrumentation, over which Van Etten’s voice hovers ethereally. The track escalates dramatically, and showcases Van Etten exploring new avenues with a brazenness. It’s quite goth, in its overall feel, and vaguely reminiscent of Portishead. Things brighten up on “Comeback Kid” – somewhat. The song is upbeat, in a vaguely effervescent, eighties way, but also full of eerie, rather ominous synths in the background. It’s a delightfully confounding mix of dark and light energy. This segues smoothly into “Jupiter 4,” on which the background noise is now an absolute discordant mess – and it’s beautiful. There’s a pulsating bass, and Van Etten steps out of her usual, languorous delivery, starting airy, but then escalating gradually into almost soaring vocals during the chorus, although with an audible vulnerability that makes it ever so much more poignant. Producer John Congleton surely has a hand in meticulously crafting the sonics that make this track so viscerally striking.
“Seventeen” brightens the mood further – an instantly catchy track that flaunts Van Etten’s natural knack for stringing together a memorable tune. It’s the most eighties-influenced song thus far, with the notorious heavy snare, and plenty of fitting equipment. For the very imaginative, it could almost be Springsteen in an alternate universe. “Malibu” sort of belies the connotations of its title – no breezy, beachy acoustic guitar strumming – and probably for the best, as only the boldest gesture of irony or cluelessness would disrupt the immaculate cohesion of this record with such an outing. There are some seriously dense strings that ominously hover over the soundscape, and Van Etten reverts to her trademark laconic delivery, as all types of razors and wheezing creep in and out of the background.
“You Shadow” begins with organ, and instantly invokes all of the romanticism that comes with an age-old sound. In seconds, bursts of distortion shuffle things up, while a steady beat takes root, and Van Etten’s double-tracked vocals evoke the likes of “Rubber Soul”-era Beatles, but with a gorgeously chaotic, dystopian backdrop. Then horns come in, adding a festiveness that makes for a truly remarkable juxtaposition. The mix of emotions in Van Etten’s music is something out of this world. “Hands” begins with growling bass, and again echoes Portishead. It’s vaguely trip-hop in its immediate feel, although updated for the present day. Dramatic, seeping, whooshing crashes introduce the chorus, and snippets of what sound a bit like creaking doors accentuate the emotion that seems to radiate in an unearthly way from Van Etten’s voice. This is possibly the darkest, grandest, and most climactic song so far. Finally, “Stay” begins with a dark tone, but a more spacious arrangement, and Van Etten’s reverberating vocals hover in the ether angelically for a few moments, after which a slightly retro, distorted backbeat takes roots, and she bellows, harmonically layered, with a freeness and fluidity that is intoxicatingly affecting. It’s a smooth and satisfying ending that, despite its change in tone, manages to segue most naturally from all that came before.
Van Etten’s new record is as heavy lyrically as it is sonically. The songs deal largely with the enigmatic nature of love, the unease and adventure that comes with romantic shifts, the nostalgia inherent in everything, the spirit of youth that fades and resurfaces, and the grand gestalt of all these components. On this album, Van Etten has inarguably leaped to unprecedented heights, taking on dimensions that will thrill, shill, shock, and thoroughly satisfy. On “Remind Me Tomorrow,” Van Etten is the perfect example of an ever-evolving artistic, who can shift shapes gracefully, and always deliver an authentic, emotive act that goes straight to the heart.
“Remind Me Tomorrow” releases Jan. 18 on Apple Music.