Sharon Van Etten has an intimacy issue, of a sort. Her previous studio efforts (and there’s a big batch of them, including self-released material and stray demos) are filled with stark and beautiful songs. Many of them are also so strikingly spare and insular — seemingly so deep into the very being of the performer — that they become distancing, as if the artist exists in a space that can’t quite be reached, only observed from a hazy remove. There are exceptions, to be sure, but I often couldn’t shake the sense that Van Etten’s music wasn’t really meant to be shared, as if it had been unearthed years later from beneath the dusty floorboards of a lonely room.
Remind Me Tomorrow, Van Etten’s latest album and first after an atypically lengthy layoff from music making, maintains the evocative starkness of her creative voice, but also adds ravishing sonic texture that heightens the intrigue. She’s hardly turned into Oasis or the Polyphonic Spree. The tracks are still lean, almost enticing the listening to lean in. And then the sonic ripples start. Opening track “I Told You Everything” employs this tactic artfully — an echoing, simple piano part, Van Etten intoning the lyrics with agonizing patience (“Sitting at the bar I told you everything/ You said, ‘Holy shit, you almost died'”) before other tricky, electrified elements creep in. The cut stays at a low simmer and yet grows fuller, like a PJ Harvey song without the punk rock spine. It’s marvelous.
The rest of Remind Me Tomorrow follows in enlivened solidarity. “No One’s Easy to Love” is like Heaven 17 with Cat Power urging for a little more chill, and “Comeback Kid” puts Van Etten’s sturdy voice atop a sedated Garbage beat. There are flinty teases throughout, such as the the rickety organ opening of “You Shadow” giving way to a jabbing beat. Those moments of the spirited unexpected also lend welcome tension to tracks with slightly less stylistic cavorting, like spectral “Jupiter 4” and the stirring single “Seventeen.” More than ever before, Van Etten is ready to strike out in any direction and every song is laden with possibility.
Even as I type out these observations, I wonder if Van Etten would agree with my assessment, if Remind Me Tomorrow feels like a departure to her, or even much of an evolution. Maybe this basic sound has always been present. Some quick needle drops on Tramp or Are We There reveal variety that I perhaps didn’t properly acknowledge. Maybe I wasn’t hearing it properly before. But then again, it might be something else. Maybe Remind Me Tomorrow is one of those great, cherished rarities: an album so boldly alive that it makes all the artist’s prior work seem new again.