Reflections on an album review: Sharon Van Etten's Tramp

Tramp (album cover)Several weeks ago, my review of the new Sharon Van Etten album Tramp was published in the Valley Advocate.

While balanced, my take on the record ended on a slightly negative note by brashly hoping for happier times in Van Etten’s future so listeners wouldn’t again be forced to endure “45-plus minutes of someone else’s relationship blues.” Yet, even as I wrote those words and clicked submit, I had misgivings. Odder still, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I felt the way I did.

As a music critic, one often has to juggle personal taste against the challenge of describing a record’s sound to an audience (read this great 2009 column by Advocate writer James Heflin for a better taste of such a conundrum). Try as I might I am still not a hip-hop or rap fan. However, if faced with the newest release by Kanye West or Eminem, I like to think I would do my best to dissect the music I heard in a strictly professional manner. And perhaps that is exactly why my opinion of Tramp confounded me to my core.

Van Etten’s music typically is branded under the large umbrella of indie rock, a genre I consider firmly in my wheelhouse. Also, I was very much a fan of the singer/ songwriter’s previous work Epic, which I even recommended to friends as “real music” and “full of spirit.” Then there was the simple fact that during her last stop in the Paradise City I was able to catch Van Etten live on stage. Though I attended the concert alone, I was moved by the experience and the sense of camaraderie that radiated between the band and the audience. So why then should I be so averse to this new album?

The simple answer is disappointment. Having become such a big fan of her previous work, I was unprepared for the sound Van Etten chose now to employ, and frustrated by this change in direction, my critical eye became clouded. Or so I thought.

Watch the official video for the song “Leonard” by Sharon Van Etten from the album Tramp here:

Returning once again to Tramp over the past few days, I am still not won over. Even the more notable tracks like “Warsaw,” “Serpents” and “Leonard” do little to distinguish themselves from the pack. Instead, the whole record almost plays like one long suite of songs indifferent to changes in mood or style. There are climaxes here and there, but no immediate moments. If one is concerned with buying albums strictly for the hits or tunes to play over and over again, then this disc is just what I thought it was upon hearing it for the first time – a disappointment.

Still, there are charms to be culled from Tramp’s languid beauty. As a meditation on the pains and joys of love or relationships in general, some might even call it a triumph. But not me. I will continue to be disappointed and confused. However, it’s not all bad. I still have plenty of more records to listen to tomorrow.

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Author: Michael Cimaomo

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