The last time I saw Sharon Van Etten play live she hid behind her hair and sang a set filled with brutally honest songs, many of which detailed the reality of an abusive relationship and its aftermath. To get on stage and share this kind of pain was visibly difficult for her. Not long after she announced a shift in focus away from music – she went to college, began acting and recently became a mother. The break became the inspiration behind her new album Remind Me Tomorrow, a step away from the shadows of her past into a different light.
The album opens with a confession. She tells her new lover ‘everything’ about her past, in a cathartic moment of truth. We don’t hear the details in this song – you just need to listen to any of her previous albums to understand what happened. He listens with compassion and sympathy, as we do too. His shocked response of ‘you almost died’ eventually becomes ‘we almost died’, a subtle shift signalling this relationship will be different than the ones she has sung about before.
Nothing is ever straightforward though and No One’s Easy To Love, as she admits on the second song. Heavy, menacing synths create an undercurrent of uncertainty. Just say you tried, she sings, trying to reassure herself. Don’t look back.
On Comeback Kid she fully embraces her new sonic direction, with an open hearted pulsating sound. Don’t look back becomes a rallying call, a reminder that you have to fight the fear that makes you run away. Please believe me I want to stay, she sings. And Jupiter 4 is the beautiful admission that she has found the kind of love she’s been searching for, waiting for. It took a long long time but it’s finally real.
Time is also explored on Seventeen, a song which felt like an instant classic on first listening. Van Etten sings to her teenage self, channeling her best Patti Smith vocals, with an epic Springsteen feel to the sound. The demo began as a Lucinda Williams style lament but this production shoots it off to another world entirely. The sound is so liberating, like she’s freeing herself from the shackles of her youth. I used to be seventeen, she sings in awe at the way time just disappears, was it just a dream? Your past is a ghost, a fleeting vision running by you in the street – as the bittersweet video brings to life so vividly.
Malibu is probably the most similar to her previous albums in terms of its quiet sound and the way she uses the higher reaches of her voice. A song of contentment and feeling love in everyday moments – from holding hands in a car to watching her partner cleaning floors. On You Shadow her past tries to darken her happiness again. You ain’t nothin’ she tells it, you never won. The victory is hers alone.
Closing track Stay is a song for her child, a hazy dream of hope. The cover picture reminds us that motherhood can be chaotic, messy, crazy but filled with fun and love. In the end she concludes that with her child she has found the meaning of life.
Happy endings are fleetingly temporary and Van Etten is too much of a realist to forget this for too long. But just for this little moment in her life the dream of happiness is real and she’s turned it into the best album of her career. Let’s worry about the future tomorrow.