It’s not often that an artist progresses as purposefully as Sharon Van Etten has over the course of her first three albums. Starting with her 2009 debut Because I Was In Love, a voice-and-guitar-centered collection of break-up songs, through 2010’s instrumentally and emotionally bolstered Epic and the new Tramp, there’s a clear through-line in Van Etten’s work pointing to a continuous musical and thematic evolution. With production by The National’s Aaron Dessner and featuring a small galaxy of indie-rock luminaries appearing in guest-star roles—including Julianna Barwick, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, and the Walkmen’s Matt Barrick—Tramp is Van Etten’s most confident-sounding album to date, pushing at the boundaries of her music and suggesting a turn away from the romantic wound-licking that has dominated her lyrics. Love and Epic were “cry alone in the car” albums, but Tramp is made of sterner stuff, capping Van Etten’s introductory trilogy with a forceful statement of perseverance and rebirth.
“I want to be over you,” Van Etten sings on Tramp’s clanking, shanty-like opener “Warsaw,” and given her style of openly autobiographical songwriting, it’s tempting to read this as a sign that the bad relationship that inspired Love is finally in her rearview mirror. Generally, as signaled by the transitional Epic, Van Etten’s lyrics deal in summoning inner strength and accepting hard truths, whether it’s the insistent “you got to lose, you got to lose, you got to lose sometime” refrain of the slowly marching “Magic Chords” or the snake imagery of the National-like co-dependency ode “Serpents”
But Van Etten’s strengthened sense of self is most plainly heard in the music on Tramp. While Dessner can be credited with expanding Van Etten’s sonic palette, Tramp isn’t as blown-out as it could’ve been, and it’s certainly not as produced as The National’s somewhat overly fussed-over 2010 album High Violet. (An exception is “All I Can,” which builds from a spare ballad to a “Hey Jude” crescendo swelling with guitars and trombone splashes.)
To its credit, Tramp still sounds like a Sharon Van Etten album. Songs like the desperate “Give Out” and the shuffling strummer “We Are Fine” (featuring vocals from Beirut’s Zach Condon) sound like lightly elaborated versions of songs that could’ve appeared on her first two records. For the most part, the production serves to accent rather than overwhelm Van Etten’s greatest asset, her voice. Vulnerable and weary, but also wise and true, it’s an ethereal, mournful, blurred instrument that’s been bruised by experience. Van Etten sings likes she’s been through something dark and profound. Tramp culminates that journey.