I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Why so sad Sharon Van Etten?
Last Saturday, which was hilariously dubbed as being the most NPR-tastic night of the decade, Van Etten, along with a few friends, brought her heart-stoppingly gorgeous voice and a veritable truckload of melancholia to the Main stage at The Black Cat. It was the largest (inexplicably so) venue that she has played in the District to date, but fans turn out by the hundreds to try and fall under the rapture of her spell.
With a beefed up sound, Van Etten’s set consisted of tracks mostly from her latest effort, Tramp (in fact she played all but two songs off the album — “We Are Fine” and “Joke Or A Lie”), as she tried, and for the most part succeeded, to strike a balance between affable performer and heartbroken truth-sayer. On paper this should be a fabulous combination, and I suppose it is really, but walking out of the show I couldn’t help but wonder “Will Sharon EVER be happy?”
Look, I know, that’s just her thing. And I’m not being critical of the performance here at all. Sharon Van Etten is a fucking STAR and she damn well knows it. Just check out that grin in the picture to the right of you. She’s worked her ass off and now she’s getting the recognition she so richly deserves. But to suggest that the material off of Tramp is anything more than a minor extension of Van Etten’s earlier, better material is an idea that this curmudgeonly old reviewer just can’t get behind.
We’ve heard Van Etten be terribly sad before, but Tramp comes off as less of an evolution than simply a holding pattern for the girl with the golden voice. And I realize I’m getting into album review territory here, but there’s a reason we haven’t reviewed the record and that’s it. It’s entirely pleasing, sure, but at the end of the day, I’m not going to be reaching for Tramp over say Epic or even Because I Was In Love. It just never reaches out and grabs you in the way her other records do, and so it makes sense that a show made up of mostly those songs would tend not to reach out and grab you either.
If that sounds like a condemnation, it’s not. Simply being able to experience that tremendous voice of SVE is something that should, and will be treasured by everyone in attendance Saturday night. And even thought the setlist did weigh heavy on the “eh” there were definitely some highs. Calling on the crowd to film B-side “Life Of His Own” (see the results here) so the person she wrote it about could see it, Van Etten and backup singer Heather Woods Broderick’s (Kelly Hogan to Van Etten’s Neko Case — these two need to stick together) voices merged in perfectly intricate harmony over a steely jab at one of Van Etten’s exes (the ex?). Maybe it was the subject matter or maybe it was just for a brief moment the overbearing-ness of it all of the music just lifted, but the song played better than just about anything else in the evening.
So the night was a rocky ride to say the least (at least for us). It happens. And hey, you’re not supposed to love EVERYTHING an artist does. Nobody is capable of having everything they write be perfect. But I’d go through it all again any night of the week just to here Van Etten perform “Love More” again (she closed with the song when she played The Red Palace in 2011 as well) even if it meant getting clubbed over the head repeatedly with stick from the still sad, just not so great, tree that the songs from Tramp sprung from.
But what I really want is for Sharon Van Etten to be happy, and not just on stage. I want to see what happens when the mischievous joy that is hiding behind that smile starts writing songs that still have the ability to break your heart, but only because of their beauty, not because love can be such a downer, man. That’s going to be a spectacular moment in her career, and I guess the only way any of us can make sure that we’re there for it is to follow Van Etten along for the entire journey, wherever that may lead.