Recently, and rather beyond the call of duty, the New York singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten retrained as a counsellor: she had so many fans pouring their hearts out to her after gigs that she wanted to understand them better. She remarked that they were very attached to old songs she’d written about an abusive relationship she’d spent much of her twenties in, and she’d started to view that attachment with some suspicion.
I first heard her new (and fifth) album, Remind Me Tomorrow, on the top deck of a 134 bus barrelling into central London on a wet Sunday night. Like a random flashback triggered from a taste or a smell, my brain recalled the album I’d have been listening to ten years ago on the same journey: Martha Wainwright’s I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too. Music can be so odd – two albums may not sound the same at all, but they feel the same. Both are night-time listens: rain-streaked, confessional, confident, melodic, propulsive and dark.
I was working on a men’s music magazine when Wainwright’s record came out and the consensus – not helped by a cover image that showed her upside down on a sofa in fishnets – was that while she’d asserted her creative power over her famous family, she was still a bit vulnerable and “crazy”. The energy of her exceptionally honest bangers was seen to have been generated by the friction of one or two particularly bad relationships – as though behind every great female songwriter, there had to be an unpleasant man.
Wainwright was actually happily married when she recorded her best album. Van Etten – now content in her personal life – has also made her best work to date. She’s been doing the things traditionally associated with dulling the songwriting senses – having a baby, going back to school, acting in a few TV shows. The album artwork shows an impossibly cluttered playroom with a child sitting in the middle. In Remind Me Tomorrow, life’s mess is powerful and holding it all in your arms is a creative act.
Van Etten’s opening gambit, “I Told You Everything”, is a brave choice because its drama is so very subtle. This is a song about love – but not the agonising kind that twists two people together; rather, the kind that unfolds in the space between them – in the risks taken to reveal oneself, and the astonishment of being accepted. “I told you about my first time/No change, no change in your eyes… We held hands as we parted/we knocked knees as we started.” It is built on four stark, falling keyboard chords and you find yourself holding your breath between them. By book-ending the record with this and a delicate song called “Stay”, in which she explains “the gentleness of what love is”, Van Etten sets out her stall – life is all right – and within that she is free to roam.
She is touching when she roams backwards – nostalgia from a still-young person is always bittersweet. “Seventeen” and “Comeback Kid” are the straightest rock songs (shades of OMD) with some Springsteeny chord progressions (she was born an hour away from him in New Jersey). In the latter, there are moving vignettes, as Bruce would have, of the memories of teenage feeling – all the hope of getting life started, and the fear of being knocked off course: “Got a job now that my brother found working nights just a mile away/Don’t let me slip away.” It makes you want to hang your head out the window of a car – perhaps even the “little red car that don’t belong to you” that she sings of in the tender “Malibu”.
Van Etten went to St Vincent’s producer, John Congleton, moving away from her previous guitar rock and towards a glowing nightscape of synths and space (Congleton has recorded CDs of Halloween music, apparently). On “Memorial Day” there is a breathy little organ voice that reminds me of the sax on David Bowie’s last album – and a wintery, electronic sound-wash like the spookier bits of Fever Ray. “Shadow”, meanwhile, is a jubilant bit of late-Seventies punk. “You don’t do nothing I don’t do, you shadow! You never won!” It might be about recognising the darker parts of oneself. Which is maybe a lesson for the fans.
Remind Me Tomorrow
Sharon Van Etten
This article appears in the 23 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s running Britain?