Revisitation and Minimalism: The Return of Sharon Van Etten’s Debut Album

I’d like to say that the first music I’d heard from Sharon Van Etten came via her second album, 2010’s Epic, but there’s a poster hanging on my apartment wall that marks me as a liar. That poster is from a 2009 concert benefitting Chris Knox, an influential New Zealand-based songwriter who was recovering from a devastating stroke. Among the high-profile artists performing that night were Jeff Mangum and Yo La Tengo–but also on the bill was one Sharon Van Etten. I didn’t end up hearing her debut, 2009’s because I was in love–now being reissued in an expanded edition, (it was) because I was in love–until after hearing Epic.

Specifically, what drew me to Epic was the song “Love More,” the rare song that can still stop me cold and cause me to pause until it’s reached its conclusion, held rapt by the song and the sentiment it contains. (See also: Broken Social Scene’s “Anthems For A Seventeen-Year-Old Girl.”) An interview with Van Etten in the Village Voice first piqued my interest and prompted me to pick up Epic, which finds a fantastic balance between Van Etten’s strengths as a songwriter and her ability to tap into a stunning, transcendent vein of drone. “[W]e will never be able to replicate that sound.,” Van Etten said in that interview, and that got my attention as well: she’s an artist who understands that the studio and the live realm are two different things.

The sound of (it was) because I was in love is frequently stark, with arrangements centered around Van Etten’s voice and guitar. The album was recorded by singer-songwriter Greg Weeks, and among the musical reference points that come to mind when listening to it is Weeks’s onetime bandmate (in Espers) Meg Baird. While Baird and Van Etten’s subsequent musical paths have diverged considerably–Baird now sings and plays drums in the outstanding psych-rock band Heron Oblivion–there’s a haunting quality that both are able to summon up using the most minimal of instrumentation.

In a recent interview at The Creative Independent, Van Etten recalled the recording process for the album–including the unorthodox tunings utilized throughout it. “I’d done every single song with just guitar and vocals simultaneously. That helped us keep it minimal,” she said. But that kind of conscious minimalism also helps bring the subtle force of her music to the forefront–songs that have the ability to overpower you without shouts, booming guitars, or the roar of an orchestra. This is a quieter kind of devastation.

The end result is a showcase for Van Etten’s talents as a songwriter, even this early in her career. Sometimes, that’s accentuated by the sound of an organ, as on “For You.” Here, it adds a sense of fullness to the song, but it feels more organic than monolithic. In other words: it seems like an effort to hold the note; you get a sense of struggle, rather than simply something that overwhelms. Sometimes guitarwork sets a mood, as on “Much More Than That.” Here, an evenly-played melody provides the bedrock around which the song’s other elements take shape, wringing a quiet devastation out of something more restrained. Sometimes Van Etten’s voice is its own best counterpoint: “I Fold” ends up hosting a textual richness that largely comes from two vocal tracks moving in and out of harmony with one another.

In the midst of (it was) because I was in love, one can hear the seeds for where Van Etten would go from there–but listening to it now, it also seems of a piece with what came after, rather than a work of interest for completists.. Some of this is because the progression observable across her albums remains centered around her voice, which combines the capacity for raw power with a kind of elusiveness that keeps it equally suited for rock anthems and quiet confessionals. Listening to “All I Can” or “Give Out,” from 2012’s Tramp, gives a sense of how her voice has remained at the core of her songwriting, even as that songwriting has become fuller and fuller in its orchestration.

In an early 2017 interview with Pitchfork, Van Etten explained that, in recent years, she’d been focused on activities outside of music: continuing her education, having a child, and acting on the science fiction series The OA. Though apparently, a new album is in the works–in her conversation with The Creative Independent, Van Etten spoke about writing new songs, and mentioned that a stint in a recording studio wasn’t far off. Towards the end of “Keep,” another minutely-arranged song from (it was) because I was in love, voice and melody reach a sacred-sounding conclusion. It feels understated and beatific, the core of Van Etten’s songwriting at once in miniature and fully expansive.

Tobias Carroll frequently writes about books, music, and pop culture for a variety of publications. He is the author of the books Reel and Transitory, and can be found on Twitter as @TobiasCarroll.

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