It sounds like a bit of an effort: a re-release, and a new album of cover versions of the re-release. But Sharon Van Etten’s Epic Ten – marking ten years since the record that really got her noticed – is a compact thing, a handful of tracks and a mirror held up to each of them by artists venerable and new, such as Fiona Apple, Justin Vernon and St Panther. Epic was only 30 minutes long but emotionally it was hefty, still haunted by the abusive relationship that inspired much of van Etten’s early songwriting (she eventually escaped, guided by her sister, by putting her clothes in a duffel bag and pretending she was taking them to a laundrette). Van Etten’s singular skill is to capture the hungry, bottomless depths that can open up in a person who loves but is not loved back. How to revisit those songs years later, when domestically content, with a small child? Let someone else cover them for you.
Big Red Machine, a super-duo made up of the National’s Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, take on the opening track “A Crime”, an exhilaratingly gloomy one-way love song. Their fat falsetto vocals, complete with the famous Vernon harmonies and reverb-heavy guitar, broaden the thing out into an anthem, repositioning its sad sentiment for a festival setting, an effect that is strangely comforting. Vernon’s reworking of the track reflects the change in his own sound over the years, from wispy and spectral to full and luscious. He covered van Etten’s “Love More” back when it was new.
Like Bruce Springsteen, van Etten was born in New Jersey, and her songs have a big rock streak – there’s an ease and robustness to her melodies that offset her lyrical introspection. “Peace Signs”, in the original, is a little vortex of supressed energy with flickers of Patti Smith, and Idles, the moustachioed punk rock band from Bristol, let out that energy in their cover version, with whirlwind drums and guitars that bend defiantly out of tune.
For me, the question is whether the cover versions bring out any more “Sharon”, enhance the spirit of the originals at all. Strangely, Lucinda Williams gives little to “Save Yourself”: van Etten’s version, with its rich harmonies, is wry and defiant, but Williams, slurring her words, just makes it plod. And Courtney Barnett’s cover of “Don’t Do It” really misses something, taking van Etten’s pressure-cooker of a song – with its guns and threats and swirling cymbals – and turning it into something downbeat and drama-free.
Occasionally, a new voice seems to complete what was started. “DsharpG” – which sounds sketch-like and unfinished on Epic – is transformed into a playful dream-vision by the Las Vegas indie pop singer Shamir, whose dazzling countertenor sounds a bit like David McAlmont. And the young LA producer and singer St Panther has done something clever with “One Day”, another of van Etten’s unrequited love songs. Her bedroom-pop take, with her autotune voice glitching like a little boy’s, transforms the song into a sweet, youthful reflection that is strangely poignant for its lightness of touch: “One day I’ll be fine with all that, but don’t leave me now – do you love me back?”
Epic ends with “Love More”, one of van Etten’s starkest songs, in which she recalls being “chained like a dog in our room” but loving her partner “more and more” despite it. Fiona Apple – a rather big get – adds little to the original version, save for some bongos and the feel of hard-bitten experience. But perhaps that’s because there is little more to add. This is a life that van Etten no longer lives.