Leslie Feist. Florence Welch (let’s not forget the Machine of course). Adele Adkins. You might call them 2011’s axis of diva or cavalcade of chanteuse. However you slice it they all summoned their bewitching muse to ensnare us in their rather explosive musical worlds. Feist flat out slayed it on Metals. Miss Welch crafted “a stellar pop album draped in exquisite and perplexing cloths.” And, well, Adele continues to surpass nearly every commercial album sales record known to man. We now welcome, behind the velvet rope of perennial platitudes and NPR Streaming Status™, Sharon Van Etten.
Sophomore release epic garnered a healthy dose of acclaim to be sure. I mean hell, Bon Iver covered “Love More” barely after the vinyl started cooling. More importantly, The National featured Van Etten’s choral pipes in “Think You Can Wait.”
Enter Aaron Dessner, their soundscaper extraordinaire, whose recording techniques contrasted sharply from anyone Van Etten had previously worked with. Unlike epic’s Brian McTear who preferred a skeletal bottom-up approach, Dessner likes to record as much material as he can and then whittle out the essentials beneath. Sounds like they both uncovered quite the mother lode here.
I hope they used a whole padded room of timpani drums to amplify the wallop felt on opener “Warsaw.” Or at least the linked bass drum set-up when she recorded on Shaking Through. Makes sense to perk the ears right away with some menacing atmospheric chords gurgling beneath a low-key melody anchored solely on her mesmerizing voice. A not-even two-and-a-half minute horsd’oeuvre of the sumptuous emotional feast to come.
“Serpents” is a testament to how simple songs can become sprawling cities if the right tools are given to the proper sonic architects. Anytime a song’s prelude includes intervals of whining steel pedal feedback, two-chord rhythm guitar and a solid snare beat there’s sure to be fireworks on the other end. Sometimes that fuse is lit and peters out before the sparks fly. Most of the time, post-ignition, we’re either too confused or bored to really care about the destination. “It was a close call/Sitting in the back of the room/With a boy there.” With that introductory line, not only do you want to know how this story ends, but plugs into an immediate visceral connection with the listener. A penchant for direct sincerity that is wielded wisely by Dessner, letting the power chords tether down her emotional appeals before she dispatches them with scorn.
Don’t worry, there’s some soothing acoustic ruminations too. “Kevin’s” flips the script on previous blueprints by letting her strum a slow melody before chiming in with her own dusky harmonies. It’s not until she hammers down an E flat before the curiously infectious chorus of “Make your own grave” do we truly realize the gravity of what she’s actually saying. It almost feels like a slower version of her song “One Day”, except exceptionally more cathartic.
Ever wonder what Aimee Mann might sound like with an even more serious case of the blues? After listening to “In Line” you will have an infinitely better idea. “All I Can” still maintains the somber tone of the former, relying more on warped electric organ and deft overdubs to reach a rousing interlude of horns and strings to conclude one spooky hymn.
The deadpan marching drums echoing throughout the opening bars of “Magic Chords” remind me of “Rainy Day Women #12 & #35” without all the bombast and hooplah. In that speakeasy smooth range she whispers “You’re talking too loud/Won’t you walk over/Whisper/Motion/Hand/You gotta see” pressing her foot on the accelerator mid-verse right before the brakes are delicately pumped for the punch line. She’s accompanied by Dessner himself for a steady resigned recitation of “You’ve got to lose sometimes” which fades into “You’ve got nothing to lose this time.”
It’s evident that she’s embarked on a saga of catharsis ever since she came out with her 2009 heartbreaking debut Because I Was in Love. That raw energy is transformed into improved songcraft which is now refined to sweet crude via Dessner’s instrumental chops and her insatiable appetite for all a professional studio has to offer. A six year abusive relationship does provide ample material. Molded with capable hands, her songs will always possess that precarious balance of tender vulnerability, sheer honesty and detailed snippets of subconscious that never fail to delight.