Sharon Van Etten’s voice can silence a room. It’s loaded with so many natural intangibles. She has a clear-lined timbre, fragile as thread. Her emotive ebbs enchant with gentility, like the glacial beauty of poured honey. The last track, “Love More”, on her new seven-track record “Epic”, is the best song of 2010, so far. It opens with the buzzing resonation of a portable harmonium. Van Etten’s voice stretches across her dark dirge like a lullaby, transfixing with lyrics of conspicuous imagery and ambiguous meaning: “Chained, to the wall of our room / Yeah, you chained me like a dog in our room …” Immediately following that line is one of the prettiest vocal melodies you’ll hear; an extended note and fluttery pitch like a ghazal singer.
There’s something really beautiful going on here. The figurative language of the song circles around the often torturous nature of love, coming back full circle to verses of future promise, “She made me love, she made me love, love more …” It’s a song topically chilly and instrumentally warm. Its richly-layered harmonics blend into sliding fricatives, settling on a tone that’s somber, heartbreaking, and intimate as nakedness. There are delicate touches, like the rustle of sandblock, a light vocal reverb, deep resonating drum, beautiful delay-effected guitar moans, and Van Etten’s subtle word intonations.
The small details are Van Etten’s forte. She seems to relish in them, like the notion of love contained in the gentle touching of feet in “Much More Than That” from her 2009 debut album, “Because I Was In Love”: “My toe hit your toe lightly / Your toe met my heel right back / And I don’t think I need much more than that.” Her debut record was largely built on a soft folk foundation, layered harmonies, and light tambourine — allowing Van Etten to spread her vocal melodies like drops of watercolor on textured paper. But the new album sheds some of the singer-songwriter vulnerability and instead finds her with an actual band, a new sharpness, and higher volume. Her sincerity is still there. She’s as personal as ever. However, “Epic” begins with more of a bang than a whimper.
The album opener, “A Crime”, is a bitter reflection on loving too hard, beginning with a roughly strummed guitar and pointed vocals, utilizing Van Etten’s lower register skills. “Peace Signs” is downright explosive, showing a confident singer branching out and finding a different way to use her voice within an aggressive rock and roll structure, built on heavy drums and guitar: “I still dream when I think of you / In the calm of the night / And I don’t know what to do / Peace signs / When I wake up, I am already me / And I am not a afraid, I am something / Peace signs.”
The piano-rollicking ballad, “Save Yourself” (one of the strongest tracks on the record), is a song made for knocking back a half-bottle of Scotch at the local tavern. It lulls with a gracefully rolling chorus, floating vocal harmonies and Cat Power prowess. It’s a bittersweet song about selfishness in a relationship. But listening to Van Etten sing the word “reeling” feels like the whole beauty of world has unfolded into that hazily-tinged sensation one gets being drunk with a good friend: “You still make me smile / As much as I am reeling / It has been awhile … / Don’t you think I know, you’re only trying to save yourself? / Just like everyone else.”
“DsharpG” is the majestically moody companion piece to “Love More”. It’s a spiritual awakening, akin to the sounds of The Velvet Underground, with their spacious noise sprawl and loud drones. The song calls out with pulsing harmonium, stunning vocal scaling, and sparse drum thumps that fade into a musical disintegration of found sounds, inaudible whispers, and a brief faint chorus. “Don’t Do It” interestingly levels out the volume of the instruments with Van Etten’s voice. They get equal-billing so-to-speak, towering into a sound more loud than anything Van Etten has done to date. “One Day” is an elegant plaintive-waltz with a country-tinged chorus that is so open in its musical range one could imagine Loretta Lynn as well as Aimee Mann doing their own versions of the song. Van Etten wondered on “Because I Was In Love” if she’d be a better writer someday. Well, she’s always been a good songwriter, but now she’s broadened into a new range of sounds, which include rock, pop, avant-garde experimentation, and a country-strain of Americana. This is one of the best albums of the year.
Note: Van Etten is currently touring with songstress Marissa Nadler and can be heard in these cities: Sep. 9: Charlottesville, Va. at Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar; Sep. 12: Charlotte, N.C. at The Milestone; Sep. 13: Knoxville, Tenn. at The Pilot Light; Sep. 14: Atlanta, Ga. at 529. (The lyrics referenced in the review are unofficial.)