Brooklyn singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten is still playing the same simple chords. She’s still singing in beautiful, lilting harmonies the panic and excitement of falling in and out of love. But what sets her third album, Tramp (Jagjaguwar), apart from the tight though interchangeable tracks of Epic and the polite introductory curtsy of Because I Was In Love is confidence. Van Etten’s mounting ballsiness is as clear in her wall-shaking live performance and her knowing, stalk-you-across-the-room gaze on Tramp’s black-and-white cover as it is in the material itself. Thanks to production assistance from the National’s Aaron Dessner and guest spots by members of Beirut, the Walkmen and Wye Oak, Van Etten finally has the full-bodied instrumental backing her voice deserves to become a truly propulsive power that opens wide, cuts deep and, when it needs to, rocks hard.
Take for example the album’s leading single, “Serpents.” A song with similar lyrics about a venomous and self-consuming romance could play out as a tender pity ballad on Epic, but above a building fray of guitar fuzz and drum fills (courtesy of the Walkmen’s Matt Barrick), it becomes Tramp‘s first badass rock standout and Van Etten’s first patented headbanger. Savor that sneering stab of malice when she delivers the lines, “You enjoy sucking on dreams/So I will fall asleep with someone other than you.” It’s a vindictive honesty we haven’t heard from Van Etten before, landing a glorious gut punch instead of a gentle heart-string tug.
But Tramp is just as dense with familiar moments of longing, relief and revelation, and as always Van Etten’s vocals have a sublime talent for striking bliss out of emotional cave-ins. The marching drum beat on “Magic Chords” is engrossing enough to send a distracted listener skipping over a cliff, only to be scooped from rock bottom by Van Etten’s fluttering chorus, “You’ve got nothing to lose/Nothing to lose this time.” Beirut vocalist Zach Condon’s unmistakable warble helps Van Etten sing away a panic attack on the appropriately ukulele-powered singalong “We Are Fine.” One of the album’s most affecting and re-playable moments falls in the late track “Ask,” in which our Brooklyn belle delivers the devastating line, “Like cigarette ash/The world is collapsing around me,” with such sweet acceptance that havoc and heartbreak sound totally enviable for a second.
Every track on Tramp provides a singularly rewarding experience in one way or another. Only the album’s pacing weakens its impact as a whole by slouching a bit heavy with falling action after the cathartic, humming peak of “All I Can.” But even that slouch becomes a somersault when the intimately understated closing track “Joke Or A Lie” cycles back to the undeniable strumming pummel of album opener “Warsaw.” As with Van Etten’s bad romance in “Serpents,” it’s far too easy to get sucked in again and again.