Author: Megan Karangutkar
Header: Album cover courtesy of Jagjaguwar
“Sitting at the bar, I told you everything / You said ‘holy sh*t’”
The first lines of Sharon Van Etten’s new record, Remind Me Tomorrow, are a particularly succinct summation of what it’s like to listen to her music. She tells you everything—in the quiet vulnerability of songs like “Give Out,” the soaring devastation of “Your Love is Killing Me,” or the heartbreaking swells of “Love More.” To hear any one of Van Etten’s songs is to immediately and intensely empathize with her pain. In the face of all that, “holy sh*t” seems like an entirely appropriate response.
Remind Me Tomorrow is Van Etten’s first album in five years, during she has had a child, scored a film, acted in a television show, and gone back to school for psychology. In other words, Sharon Van Etten has been busy, taking some time away from the folk-adjacent, confessional music that she has made for years. Van Etten’s last release, 2014’s Are We There, is largely indicative of her style as a songwriter. Its gut-wrenching lyrics about an unhealthy relationship evoke the intimacy and pain that have driven so many to find comfort in her work. On this record, Van Etten isn’t so concerned with the destructive relationships of her past, but with the challenges of healthy ones in the present. Instead of settling for a clear narrative, Remind Me Tomorrow is both ominous and hopeful, an honest reflection of the mess of love.
The opener, “I Told You Everything,” is a lyrically sentimental song about revealing oneself completely and finding comfort in connection with another person. The song is marked, however, by the threatening swell of a synth which grows louder and louder until it gives way halfway through to a simple drum beat. The abrupt shift is a moment of relief from the tension of the song’s first half, but one that isn’t too long lived. Van Etten employs menacing synthesizers throughout Remind Me Tomorrow, shifting away from the guitars and pianos that have defined her previous works. Take “Jupiter 4” for example, where Van Etten sings about the joys of love over a slowly droning synth line. Brilliant lyrics about the comforts of domesticity like “turning the wheel on my street / My heart still skips a beat” or the repeated “baby, baby, baby / I’ve been searching for you / I want to be in love” gain an ominous tone over the pulsing sound of a Jupiter 4 synth. (As a side note, said Jupiter 4 is obviously the namesake of the song, but also owned by the actor Michael Cera, information that endlessly amuses me for reasons I can’t really explain.) “Jupiter 4” has a whirlpool-like quality to it, dragging you deeper down into its world of hypnotic synths and complete devotion—a love song filled with dread.
Other tracks see Van Etten contending with insecurities of love through both lyrical and sonic elements. “Memorial Day” reveals Van Etten’s apprehensions about love with the repeated line, “you will run” in an atmospheric, reverb-heavy chorus. The song is somewhat eerie, mirroring its doubtful lyrics with a haunting background. On “Hands,” the chorus practically bursts out of the verses, driven by pounding drums and piercing synthesizers. Production wise, it’s one of the most intense songs on the record, with a harshness that I haven’t heard in any of her other work. Over this sonic background, lines like “put your hands on your lover / Mean no harm to one another / Put your hands up” sound threatening instead of sweet. It’s the unexpectedness of songs like these that reflect Van Etten’s search for an honest representation of love.
Even the most straight-forward love song on Remind Me Tomorrow, “Malibu,” is not exempt of uncertainty. After lyrics about the joy of driving up the coast with a partner, the song descends into what almost feels like negative space with washed out drums and throbbing synths. Instead of giving us the big swell we might expect at the end of a love song, Van Etten pulls the rug out from under listeners, leaving us with a conclusion that is more uncertain than triumphant.
On the standout track, “Seventeen,” Van Etten sings to a younger version of herself, both reveling in and mourning the naivety of youth. The song’s most powerful moment comes during the bridge, when Van Etten lets loose and screams the lines “I know what you’re gonna be / I know that you’re gonna be.” It’s a sweeping anthem of a song, but within its undeniably catchy melodies is the ambivalent perspective of an adult looking back at teenage years. Neither patronizing nor glorifying, “Seventeen” is a genuine reflection on youth and the mixed feelings we all have when we think about our past selves.
The album art of Remind Me Tomorrow features two children playing in a room filled with scattered toys and items of clothing. The room is an absolute mess, but neither child seems to mind the clutter. It makes me think of the lyrics on “Stay,” where Van Etten sings, “you will let me find my way / you love me either way / you stay.” The lines are presumably about her partner or child, but I think they apply to Van Etten herself as well. Like the two kids playing in the artwork, Van Etten is embracing the chaos of love and her current life—she’s sticking it out. If the songs on this record tell us anything, it’s that Sharon Van Etten is in the midst of everything right now. And she’s ok with it all.
MEGAN KARANGUTKAR | is the bear on riverdale ok? | KXSU Music Reporter