Sharon Van Etten - "Epic"
“Everyone says I’m a fool to believe in that…following blind, following blind…”
Themes in art work like an elementary school game of password. The artist takes a general theme and applies it to their own life experiences, the depth of importance only known to them. The listener then takes the finished piece of art and translates the theme into their own experiences regarding the subject matter. It’s my basic contention that a great piece of art can do two things regarding theme: 1.) Pull out emotions from the listener based on their own experiences 2.) Add a new perspective for the listener, thus adding to their own personal perspective.
Sharon Van Etten has explored the very rich theme of being trapped in her first two albums, the debut “Because I Was In Love” and her current release “Epic”. It’s a universal theme that anyone can relate to, be it trapped in daily routine, nostalgia, a pattern of thinking or behavior. Most of Etten’s trapped theme analyzes the subject of love, but for a listener it can be easily translated to the most basic umbrella of all things dealing with the emotion of being trapped. The opening track “A Crime” starts with the lyrics “To say the things I want to say to you would be a crime. To admit I’m still in love with you after all this time. I’d rather let you touch my arm until you die. Seduce me with your charms until I’m drunk on them, go home and drink in bed and never let myself be in love like that again” Etten is dealing with being trapped in love, a love that is in the past, a love that she is hiding from by trying to get over through escape (drinking). She follows this with “Light a cigarette and think of you and walk away.” While she is trying to escape, immediately she goes back to thinking about the lost love. This exploration of being trapped is immediately about love, but even if the listener has never had such an experience, it can easily translate into any feeling of being trapped. Take the feeling of being trapped in lost dreams. We all set goals for ourselves and sometimes they are not realized. We try to forget the failure and in doing so become even more trapped in what we could no attain. Through this Etten accomplishes my first requirement in regards to theme and art.
Now for number two…adding a new perspective to theme. We have to go all the way to the last track of the album, “Love More” to find the answer to the theme. Etten, still dealing with the theme in the form of love proclaims over and over “But it made me love, it made me love, it made me love…more…it made me love, it made love, it made love…more” There we have it, the new perspective. While we may be trapped in our own problems, these problems of being trapped help us reach a higher power in dealing with them in the future. If we lost love, the next time we might appreciate new love even more. If our dreams don’t materialize we might approach them with a greater drive in the future. The new perspective of being trapped becomes a means for improvement rather than being stuck as originally presented.
Now to the music itself. Etten’s debut record “Because I Was In Love” was your basic girl with a guitar record that transcended others with the same approach because of her vulnerability and openness to the listener. It was a stripped down sound marked by poetic lyrics and soft melodies that drifted along with the emotions that spilled out song after song. “Epic” is a perfect stepping-stone for Etten, as she fills in her sound with a backing band. Where most would misstep on their sophomore album, Etten is conscious to keep to her guns and not let the backing instruments dominate the emotion that was present on her first record. The driving force of “Epic” is still Etten’s powerful lyrics, voice, and moments of uneasy minimalism. Often times the only rescue to her emotionally draining sparseness is a single tambourine hit or a doubling of her voice.
Even with her addition of band, the most powerful track is “Dsharpg” which is just Etten’s voice and one instrument. The track transcends music itself, her voice taking off and floating in the mental space of the listener. Powerful sentences pop off the pages of books and are trapped in the mind forever. Beautiful cinematic images are burned in our eyes forever. Occasionally a song can drift out of the speaker/headphones and live forever in our ears. Etten’s “DsharpG” is my favorite track of the year and has such an emotional power that after one listen I couldn’t shake it…it’s a part of me now.
With only seven tracks Etten has created a timeless piece of art in “Epic”. Sit down with her music and be a brave listener…allow yourself to explore your own emotions and life experiences in relation to her music. You will be rewarded with a new perspective on a theme that occupies mental space for all of us. Simply put Sharon Van Etten’s “Epic” is one of the most human and important albums of 2010.