What is it about Sharon Van Etten? I know I’m not the only one with a crush on her. Is it that her take on heartbreak is so disarmingly honest and intimate that listeners can’t help but fall in love? Is it her tiny frame, jet black hair, and all-knowing cat-like eyes that pierce my very soul? There’s talent, genetics, intelligence, but even more than that, there’s humility. Van Etten’s rising notoriety hasn’t changed the fact that the first thing she said after walking onstage at The Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis was a heartfelt thanks to all the people that had come.
But why wouldn’t they? SVE’s third studio album, Tramp, released a month ago to overwhelmingly positive reviews. The album included contributions from big names like Beirut‘s Zach Condon and The Walkmen drummer Matt Barrick. And on top of that… there’s the music.
If Joni Mitchell didn’t buy the patent for heartbreaking folk, Sharon Van Etten’s been keeping it in her basement. The simple suffering and longing of her second album, Epic, was shaken up in Tramp. Where still there are songs like “Joke or a Lie” that retain a more minimalistic poignancy, tracks like “Serpents” shake the listener to the core with such a dark strength, it’s almost primal.
The consistency between these two albums lies in Sharon’s vocals. Quiet to the point of a whisper or risen to yell, her tones are so lush it’s emotionally wrenching. What makes her voice so unique and music so compelling are the slight imperfections; a crack and waiver here or there. It’s that quality that SVE brings into Tramp that makes the music, though much more produced, still ring as honest and raw as any of her earlier songs.
Arriving at The Cedar Saturday night, I was a little embarrassed to realize I’d never heard of opening band Shearwater. Especially once I learned that the group was founded in 2001 by lead singer Jonathan Meiburg and Will Sheff, both members of indie rock staple Okkervil River. Much more “separate band” than “side project,” Shearwater’s sound is a mix of heavy synth and electronics with classic guitar and drums. Heavy soundscapes, their songs practically fly as they merge from verse-and-chorus to jam, all highlighted by Meiburg’s fantastically strong voice.
My favorite of the set was a track off their new record, Animal Joy, called “You As You Were.” A perfect example of Shearwater’s mastery of the build-up, the piano and synth drive the track as more and more elements add on while Meiburg’s bellowing vocals hold the thing together. It drives right off the proverbial cliff as Meiburg roars “I am leaving,” which he held right through to the end. The rest of the band matched intensity, pounding at their instruments as each song took form and mutated, before falling back into place.
Listen: Shearwater “You As You Were”
And then Van Etten took the stage. Instantly, cries of “We love you Sharon!” “You’re the greatest!” and even a “Marry me!” were thrown toward the singer, who laughed awkwardly before launching into “Leonard.” But the adulations didn’t stop. Without fail, the break between each song was graced with some voice from the crowd confessing their love. “You’re the best!” someone at the front yelled out. “Oh man,” she replied, “I don’t want to be the best. That’s a long way to fall.”
The incredibly charming stage banter wasn’t limited to Sharon’s interactions with the crowd, but persisted within the band itself. Keyboardist and vocalist Heather Broderick – or “Moon Patrol,” as the band informed us – traded jokes with Van Etten about how far apart they were on the stage with promises to sit together in the tour van. Bassist Doug Keith weighed in with his own stake in the seating arrangement as the whole scene unfolded like some kind of family sitcom the audience was more than happy to watch. Conspicuously quiet on the subject was drummer Ben Lord; he must sleep in the back seat.
Had the songs themselves not been so well performed, the banter might have been distracting. But that’s not what happened. The layered, rough-but-lush sound Tramp promotes so well translates excellently into a live setting with Keith switching between bass and organ and Broderick between rhythm, keyboards, vocals. This multi-instrumentation sets Tramp so far above SVE’s two previous albums, which were hailed for their stark kind of simplicity. On Epic, tracks like “Love More” resonate with listeners because of the bare-bones combination of a simplistic melody, droning organ, and a hint of drums. Tramp’s break from that simplicity into more experimental territory is exciting both in the energy the songs infuse into live performances and in its reflection on Van Etten’s maturing style as a songwriter.
“Serpents” is the quintessential song representing SVE’s new style. Steady bass and rhythm mix with unrelenting guitar that express not only frustration and bitterness, but an anger and agression that has rarely existed in the band’s previous songs. Of course, I’m not complaining. A whole new emotional spectrum is explored in “Serpents,” and its aggressive tone makes for great energy live. Where normally Van Etten’s voice floats soft above her music, it lies low here before building to a yell at the chorus where it stretches and grates.
One of the best aspects of this experimentation and layering in a live setting is its influence on older songs. Heather Broderick’s add-on introduction to “Don’t Do It” was a haunting looping of her own vocals that wafted beautifully into the song. Broderick’s vocals stood alone wonderfully as an intro, but her harmonies also pervade the rest of the tracks, adding a layer that revives them after so many listens.
Before launching into “Give Out,” Van Etten stated that it was “maybe the worst song she’d written,” because she found it to be the most optimistic. It was a funny thing to say, given that the woman onstage singing sad songs could barely stop herself from bursting into grins. That optimism is another element that creeps into Tramp at random, particularly in the track “All I Can.” The lyrics themselves aren’t particularly sunny, but talk more of hope for redemption and change. The chorus, “I do all I can/We all make mistakes” is more about self-acceptance than defeat, which makes the rising guitar and harmonies, if not optimistic, cathartic.
After the kind of applause expected from a sold-out room of lovestruck fans, the band reemerged for an encore. Leading off was new song “Life of His Own,” which snagged a false start as Van Etten and Broderick kept making each other laugh. The track, not on the album, is a b-side that espouses independence and claims Van Etten is looking for a man with his own thing going (take note, fellas), “‘Cause I got my own life.” The group ended their set for real with “Love More,” a stand-by that can hardly be called such because of the sweet, painful honesty it still holds, despite the number of performances.
It’s a little ironic that Sharon inspires the very unrequited love she sings about in her fans. By sheer numbers, it’s safe to say at least 99.9% of us are doomed to remain hopelessly ensnared. It’s a shame, really. But one day, maybe, we can learn to love again.