When New Yorker Sharon Van Etten released the appropriately titled ‘Comeback Kid’, late last year, garnering huge acclaim and sighs of relief from the many who were worried they had heard the last of her, she reminded us, after a gap of nearly five years, why so many admired her work. Gentle and folksy on the surface, Etten wore her heart on her sleeve in displaying darker undertones, and human frailty. Now though, there is a heightened rock’n’roll grit to her music, ‘Comeback Kid’ containing a hint of the expressive Anna Calvi, with the muscularity of both New York’s LCD and The Strokes.
A lot has happened since she released Are We There, one of the best albums of 2014, and which could have been the springboard from which she could have sprung very high. However, she didn’t. Instead, the romantic decay she had alluded to on that album, has given way to a new found romance (which managed to stick around), child rearing, acting, as well as a yearning for other career pastures.
Remind Me Tomorrow was written while pregnant, going to school for psychology training, and after taking The OA audition, in which she has subsequently guest starred. She has also performed in David Lynch’s revival of Twin Peaks, and scored her first feature film, Strange Weather. Her new found loves and interests informs and broadens Remind Me Tomorrow.
‘I Told You Everything’, the lead track, sees Van Etten bare it all to her partner, wrapped in a slow and somewhat mournful approach, akin to Lennon’s early post-Beatles records in the shape of the brutal, harrowing, yet cathartic Plastic Ono Band. “Sitting at the bar I told you everything. You said ‘Holy Shit’. You almost died“, she sings. Yet here, it’s not the end of the story. Romance has blossomed, despite the roadblocks of life. ‘No One’s Easy to Love’ expands on that whilst also detailing its difficulties, its harder synth edge, shuffling beats, and heavy bottom, marking a definitive departure from moody acoustica, to dark, yet groove-based electro; Van Etten elongating the vocal notes into bewitching hypnotic effect. Similarly, ‘Malibu’ sounds desolate and heavy hearted on the surface, but is also intriguingly a love song: “I walked in the door / The Black Crowes playin’ as he cleaned the floor / I thought I couldn’t love him anymore.” It’s the contrasting light and shade of Remind Me Tomorrow, where even the obvious lyrics of love are dripping with an undercurrent of sadness, and the music which is a noirish, and vaguely twisted brew, that is so appealing.
The introspection is heightened with album highlight, the Springsteen-esque ‘Seventeen’, in essence a love letter to the city she has lived in for nearly 15 years (she originally hails from New Jersey): “Downtown harks back, halfway through this life / I used to feel free / Was it just a dream?” she sings as if her life depended on it, against a brooding backdrop of fried guitars, and warped, almost malfunctioning synths, but underlaid with a toe-tapping groove.
There are some slightly more experimental turns, such as on the spooky psych of ‘Memorial Day’, the similarly 60s-inflected and out there ‘You Shadow’, where an old school Shangri-Las vocal vibe is married to Portishead style beats; and the equally gothic, but post-punkish ‘Jupiter 4’ (named after her synth of choice), coming across like a poppier Suicide.
Remind Me Tomorrow may put off those who hanker for the younger, more wispy acoustica of Sharon Van Etten. However, like we all do, when we find new relationships, and pastures, it marks a decisive step forward. At once it’s a work that is infused with the ghosts of America’s rock’n’roll past, and yet it’s a thoroughly modern sound, fear and love somehow aligning itself, and demonstrating alt-rock is alive and well in the hands of this exceptional artist.