Sharon Van Etten: Tramp

Christina Lee


Two words often pop up in Tramp: “Tell me.” Occasionally, she wants to hear that she’s worth your attention––or, proof you deserve hers. Sometimes she asks you to hold her hand. And other times, she just wants to know what to do.

Van Etten once confessed of feeling like a consolation prize, with a voice that could disappear in a harsh wind, in her sparse debut Because I Was in Love. Two moves later––from Tennessee to her home state of New Jersey to New York––and to a harmonium, she continued to elaborate on the reasons why: “Tied to my bed / I was younger then / I had nothing to spend / but time on you.” And in Tramp, after a few years of touring, she’s revisiting songs she wrote prior to the Fleetwood Mac-inspired epic, often of her own hesitance to fall in love and restless debating over who to blame.

Produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner, Tramp places her pained songs of times past partly in the hands of a hefty supporting cast: Beirut’s Zach Condon, the Walkman’s Matt Barrick and Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner. These newfound collaborators testify to their devotion all over Tramp. Once imagined as a pep talk to herself, “We Are Fine” is now a tender ukulele ballad from one friend talking the other through a panic attack. “Magic Chords” is a solemn procession, in which Van Etten repeats, “You got to lose, you got to lose / you got to lose sometime.” Wasner’s voice trails behind and haunts Van Etten’s own singing, and it often disappears as quickly as it came.

But Van Etten’s songs of reluctant hope and sudden hopelessness often end with final words of resignation, pain that sharply cuts through Tramp‘s muscle. As a small army of guitars starts to flee, Van Etten summons up the strength to spit out an accusation that Wasner echoes––”You enjoy sucking on dreams / so I can fall asleep with someone other than you”––only to fight off thoughts of forgiveness. “Leonard” breathes and swells as hopeful strings and a steady piano line peeks from behind Van Etten’s voice, a waltz that feels like a happy ending even though it isn’t. (“Just walk away surprised / he loved you,” she tells herself.) Her black eye, as mentioned in “Serpents,” may have long disappeared, but Van Etten can still sing of self-deprecation with devastating conviction. And as her final words of defeat collide against and escape these drums, riffs and voices of newfound support––Tramp‘s very last words being, “I tried”––Van Etten reminds us that when confidence isn’t constantly nurtured, it’s fleeting.

Tramp finds Van Etten backed by a number of collaborators who have complete confidence in her––musicians who gladly worked to magnify her emotions but had also latched onto her music when it was set to little more than an acoustic guitar, or a harmonium. In what feels like a gradual and emotional progression, without any regard to time or trends, Sharon Van Etten may employ some of those same musicians and opinions for her next album––but she won’t need them. All she’ll need, really, is to believe in herself as much as they do.


Tramp is available through Jagjauwar.