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Sharon Van Etten’s ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’ and the clothing of confession

| Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Observer | Lina Domenella

Sharon Van Etten, age 37, leaves the confessional free of pain. Once acetic (“Break my legs so I won’t walk to you / Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you / Burn my skin so I can’t feel you / Stab my eyes so I can’t see”), the veteran songsmith abandons flagellation in favor of empowerment. Synthesizers supplant strings, signifying a singular forward direction. Stubbornness subverts sad, signifying closure, confidence. “Remind Me Tomorrow,” Van Etten’s fifth LP, exemplifies poet Elizabeth Bishop’s sentiment: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master; / so many things seem filled with intent / to be lost that their loss isn’t a disaster.” Bishop and Etten render loss harmless for (as Bishop writes) “Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture / I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident / the art of losing’s not too hard to master / Though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.”

“Write it!Bishop orders herself. Pin the heart’s coarse surface to language’s grindstone. Apply pressure until you can look upon the heart’s glossy surface and see an illuminate face beaming back at you. Do this, and do it now.

“Remind Me Tomorrow,” Van Etten retorts. Maybe (she sings on “No One’s Easy to Love”) “the resistance to feeling something that you put down before” seemed plausible as time went on the march — a sign of maturity. But “Too much has changed,” since that period of alleged maturity and self-deception (“The art of losing isn’t hard to master”) won’t cut it. “I can’t let you walk in the night,” Van Etten admits, “leave the dawn / Acting as if all the pain in the world was my fault.” Synthesized heartbeats (producer John Congleton’s doing) underneath Van Etten’s frank terms pulsate in agreement. Age does not hold the heart to the grindstone, removing its blemishes. It repackages the heart in a new casing (lyrical, sonic) thicker and equally (if not more) distorted than the last.

When Van Etten recalls the “Downtown hotspot halfway up the street” where she “used to be free […] used to be seventeen” overtop adolescent wails (vacuum tube amplifiers, upon reaching a certain threshold, can no longer produce a clean guitar tone and must distort the signal in order to increase volume), her brief dalliance with reservation (a few icy la-la-las after the second chorus) shatters when she howls “I know what you’re gonna be” with such tenacity that one can’t help but fear for her diaphragm. The same “Downtown Hotspot halfway through life” drags along extra baggage (“I used to feel free or was it just a dream?”) but it’s not passionless. If anything, the added dimensions amplify passions, push them beyond the semi-clean elegance of their 17-year-old form.

“Comeback kid / comeback kid,” we long to shout when an artist like Van Etten returns to the spotlight. “Come back, kid / Let me look at you.” “Don’t look back / Don’t look back,” we advise (obscuring our own fondness for the old stuff). We expect her to adopt a linear perception of time (the past is the past and irrelevant as far as the present and future are concerned) without acknowledging unwanted memories — Proustian loops along the timeline.  If time were linear, then we could run from the past, clothing ourselves the armor of constant motion: the recurring “let’s get out of this town” motif in adolescent art. But time isn’t linear. It spirals around us, depositing elements of our past as mental obstacles in the present and future. The faster we try to run away from these obstacles, the greater the injury when they finally do trip us up.

Van Etten ignores the urge to run, remaining stationary for the sake of her child (just over a year old). “Don’t wanna hurt you,” she sings to the infant. “Don’t wanna run away from myself.” She punctuates her firm foothold with a statement of gratitude to her “One start, one, light […] meaning of life.” “You, you love me either way,” she declares. “You stay.”

  • Artist: Sharon Van Etten
  • Album: “Remind Me Tomorrow”
  • Label: Jagjaguwar
  • Favorite Tracks: “Seventeen”
  • If you like: Angel Olson, Alvvays
  • Shamrocks: 4 out of 5
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