NPR Music, in a piece on Sharon Van Etten, reported that “Tramp,” the latest release from the “cripplingly shy” singer-songwriter, consisted of songs predominantly about “the internal navigation through life’s minefield.” What a profound and very true statement that is. “Tramp” is quite the revealing record. Van Etten puts herself “out there” but not in an over-the-top, superficial manner — it’s conversational and bonding. It seems empathetic to the listener.
Take the album’s first real intimate tune: “Give Out.” Van Etten has a solemn and brutally honest voice as she makes clear her weaknesses. The tone is enough to make you feel anxious and worrisome about your social interactions — the song really takes you aback. “Ask” follows suit — Van Etten sings seriously, pained with sadness and loneliness. Van Etten sings during its chorus: “It hurts too much to laugh about it.” Take that for what you will, but clearly Van Etten is releasing some internalized depression through her lyrics.
The album is by no means completely melancholy. Van Etten produces happier notes at points, as on “Leonard.” I ought to say that Van Etten “produces happier notes” in the same way you might when you look at a funny picture of yourself from high school. Van Etten seems to be praising some previous loved one in this song, perhaps yearning for his presence again. The Zach Condon-featured (lead singer-songwriter of Beirut) “We Are Fine” is also more optimistic for Van Etten — it’s the sonic testament to the wearisome process of coming back from falling.
Indeed, the album is strewn with lovely, familiar lyrical expressions of our human emotion, but also it is necessary to note the music that Van Etten makes in itself. The album’s opener, “Warsaw” is strangely memorable. I say strangely because the swing of the lightly-fuzzed guitar is reminiscent of the noisy, albeit anthemic, post-grunge of the ‘90s — although it is considerably more coherent. “Warsaw,” along with “Serpents,” is possibly the loudest on the record, the latter being a dreary, rocking tune.
“Tramp” is a record about being sad and, as mentioned, “life’s minefield.” It’s a tough subject to tackle, given how overdone it is — however Sharon Van Etten approaches it tastefully, even with all the heart-wrenching and wincing it might produce. The seemingly “shy” Van Etten surely is honest.