Sharon Van Etten – Tramp

The last time I spoke with Sharon Van Etten, she acknowledged feeling some pressure over her still-in-process third album. It was the classic “people are paying attention this time, there are expectations” mindgame, a line of logic I’ve never really embraced. After all, with the brilliant epic Van Etten had already proven she could deliver the goods, and she possesses the musical passion to drown out the dissonance of gawkers.

So I’m happy to report that her follow-up succeeds on virtually every level. Tramp is the rare album that expands its artist’s palette without compromising what made her special in the first place. Recorded with The National’s Aaron Dessner – whose credits here run long enough to approach equal billing – Tramp retains Van Etten’s warm, economical sound, accented with echoey guitar and an occasional country-folk twang (a hint of a drawl on tracks like the beguiling “Ask” betrays this Jersey girl’s years spent in Tennessee). She hearkens back to the unadorned singer-songwriter fare of debut Because I Was in Love on tracks like “Give Out,” her clever wordplay and haunting voice raising the proceedings well above introspective journal scrawlings. On the other end of the spectrum is the powerhouse “Serpents,” the most extroverted tune Van Etten has recorded and one that has her uncharacteristically lashing out rather than ruminating. “You enjoy sucking on dreams/ so I will fall asleep with someone other than you/ I had a thought you would take me seriously,” she spews, with enough musical backbone that the song’s already fitting tidily among alt-rock staples on some radio playlists.

epic’s dauntingly high standard was aided by its compact 33-minute running time, and the longer Tramp almost inevitably hits a soft patch. The ukulele and overt sentimentality of her duet with Zach Condon, “We Are Fine,” which turns over a full verse to Condon, sounds more fitting for a Beirut album – his talents are put to better use on the harmonies that follow on “Magic Chords,” which also finds Van Etten swapping her guitar for an organ. Perhaps best of all, she revisits the ethereal drone of epic’s six-minute “Dsharpg,” distilling it to a more approachable four minutes and trading the harmonium for a trombone to create the entrancing “I’m Wrong.”

Past similarities to Mazzy Star have been confined to the deliberately paced “In Line,” and in the few cases where the material isn’t singular, you’ve always got that lovely voice to latch onto. Tramp sounds like another deeply personal record that’s unlikely to stay private for very long.

Sharon Van Etten