Sharon Van Etten


Rating: 4.3/5.0

Label: Ba Da Bing

Introducing a fuller sound than on her previous two records, Sharon Van Etten’s Epic doesn’t quite live up to its title in the traditional sense of the word, but it does hold a cavernous quality that makes it feel bigger than just another folk record. Devoid of any face-melting guitar riffs or extravagant 30-piece drum kit solos, Epic has the sort of dignified vastness that is found among deep valleys and towering mountains, the kind of understated importance only Mother Nature herself could posses. Van Etten’s soprano is one that is delicate enough to seem well-placed in a church choir, but at the same time, the singer/songwriter carries a very rugged and emotionally raw quality to her pipes. The way that Van Etten can go from the tender voice of “A Crime” to the aggressive, yodel-like shifts in “Peace Signs,” then back to a delicate drawl with “Save Yourself” sets her apart from other acoustic acts.

Though as a solo artist, Van Etten herself may only be one voice with one instrument, she hasn’t let that limit her in this release. Epic includes a variety of instrumental back-up sprinkled across its seven tracks, but even with the extra pizzazz Epic adopts, the only real augmentation to her distinct voice is the occasional backing vocals contributed by Meg Baird, Jessica Larrabee and Cat Martino. Songs “DsharpG” and “Don’t Do It” best exhibit that extra help with goose-bump inducing harmonies that unite the four voices into one spectral soprano. It is arguable that these harmonies improve on Van Etten’s sound so much that she ought to consider a permanent collaboration.

A big part of what makes both Epic and Van Etten so easy to feel connected to is the straight-forwardness of their presentation. While musically, Epic is an album devoid of any aggrandizing enhancements, as a songwriter, Van Etten lays her whole self out with very little hesitation. Most of Epic is spent pleading with a nameless second party to change their ways or let her move on. Lines such as, “Look me in the eye/ Say you can’t do it/ But you will if you want to/ If you want to do it/ You were born to do it even if I don’t want you too,” in “Don’t Do It” and “You still make me smile/ As much as I am relieved / It has been a while/ Please don’t make me show/ That I’m not your gal,” in “Save Yourself” have Van Etten telling the story of a sinking relationship while doing her best not to drown along with it. Epic is wrought with insecurity, but the narratives Van Etten delivers aren’t self-scrutinizing in a way that feels pitiful. Instead, the doubt and heartache this Brooklyn siren sings about is more matter-of-fact, and this collection of songs is Van Etten’s way of accepting that.

Encompassing all the growth witnessed throughout Epic is “Love More,” the conclusion to this oppressive back and forth where instead of harping on the negatives, Van Etten finds herself reflecting on the reason she kept staying: “Had nothing to spend but time on you/ But it made me love/ It made me love it made me/ Love more.” The sparing style of “Love More” sounds achingly beautiful as Van Etten’s tremulous voice carries its melody over a pulsing singular note from what sounds like an accordion, creating a churning ambiance that feels much like what Van Etten’s subconscious must have sounded like while experiencing the inspiration behind this album. Epic is a soundtrack to moving on, and despite the subject matter being done many times before; Van Etten breathes new life into it by forgoing any shrouding metaphor and allowing the music to remain personal. The sincerity in Van Etten’s songwriting is the kind that can only come when the musician isn’t writing for anyone but him or herself. While an emotionally honest singer with an acoustic is nothing new, Van Etten’s raspy sorrow comes with the perfect balance of hopefulness and apathy, making her songs feel relatable from both ends of the spectrum.

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