Sharon Van Etten has always written incisively about knotty subjects, right back to when she was tied to her bed on early career highlight Love More. Listen to that song and you’ll hear a portrait of an abusive relationship sung as sweetly and directly as if you were her best friend. ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’ is much less intimate. Her new album is variously swaying and austere and enigmatic, and full of sounds that have never been on a Sharon Van Etten album before.
Take opener, I Told You Everything. Over sparse piano chords she recounts telling her now partner “everything about everything”. The song hints at great trauma, but it is told from a distance. The emotions in the song are not the emotions associated with the trauma, but with the experience of telling someone about it. Like much of the album, it keeps the listener at arms length. It’s honest, but it’s not intimate.
Adopting this perspective leads to a new kind of songwriting from Sharon on ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’. Although there are still moments of stray-eyelash detail, as on the polaroid-pretty Malibu, she largely avoids writing from specific moments on this album. Her subjects are mostly detached and complex, like her evolving relationship with her home. She explores emotions and truths that reveal themselves over years instead of seconds.
Musical experimentation has historically not been high on Sharon’s list of priorities. Her four albums thus far have been crafted from broadly similar components – clean guitars, straightforward drums, piano. ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’ sounds much odder than any of those albums, adding to its inscrutability.
The album is produced by John Congleton, who has been known to supervise the robotic noises that find their way onto St. Vincent albums, among others. Each song seems to cover new sonic ground for Sharon. There are the dramatic, thrilling synthesizers on Comeback Kid. The peels of industrial noise on Hands. The gorgeous metallic sheen to her normally pristine vocals on Stay. These moments open new doors of expression for her.
On Jupiter 4 for example, a woozy atmospheric song constructed of high-end feedback and gloopy base notes, she sings: “Baby, baby, baby I been waiting my whole life for someone like you”. In the past, you can bet this line would have sounded like a whispered secret. Here though, against the whistling mechanical wind, it feels much more vague and impersonal, as if the “you” she is singing about is not even a person.
What then, to make of the fact that the album highlight is the song that could most easily fit on either of her last two albums? On Seventeen, Sharon sounds direct and intimate for the first time. Her intimacy is not for a person, but for New York City and a moment in her life. For much of this album she sounds mysterious, on Seventeen she bypasses obscurity and goes straight for the hairs on the back of your neck. “I used to feel free” she sings desperately, unsure, “or was it just a dream?”. Finally holding eye contact with the listener, Sharon bottles a universal feeling of panic-nostalgia: Will I ever feel that free again? Was I really happier then? Am I remembering the parties but forgetting the hangovers? I’m a different person now? Aren’t I?
Quite a lot has been made of this being Sharon’s first album after having her first child. Reminiscent of Serena Williams’ turn at the US Open last year, article upon review dutifully insert the “new-mother” prefix into her name during coverage of the album. Leaving aside the question of whether the subject would be given as much prominence for a male musician (spoiler: it wouldn’t), you would be forgiven for expecting an album of acoustic lullabies or verses about the price of nappies.
Instead we get, among other things, Sharon flatly singing that “no one’s easy to love” (WHAT ABOUT THE NEW BABY SHARON?) over a stuttering Beck electro beat, and daydreaming about being a responsibility free teenager. This does not fit cleanly into the archetype of doting new mother. But new mothers are still just people: they are welcome to feel misanthropic, mess around with harsh synthesizers and write songs about about whatever they want. This is far from a concept album, and it’s better for it.
That is not to suggest that that part of her life is not a valid lens to consider the album through. However, to unduly focus on the subject of motherhood does a disservice to an album that sprawls and twists across events of her life.
On ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’ Sharon Van Etten writes with a newfound distance. There are moments, as on No One’s Easy To Love, when her voice, harmonized beautifully by long-time collaborator Heather Woods Broderick, clicks wonderfully with the dirty electronics, capturing a truth at once obvious and uncomfortable. There is a convincing argument that Sharon Van Etten’s best songs are still the ones that wear their heart on their sleeve, as Seventeen does. ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’ however, largely has Sharon exploring unfamiliar musical textures and creating something new with them – less breathless, more inscrutable. It is a welcome step in her career.