There’s very little I feel I could possibly say on dearest Sharon Van Etten that hasn’t already been gushed with utmost effusion this year. Chances are that if you’ve flickered through these metaphysical pages previously you’ll have encountered such profuse verbiage right around these parts, even. So why spend an undue amount of today time dribbling yet more lyrical wax over one already established as being among the most exemplary artistes to have released this year? Well, because there really is no way of valuing my time when set against Van Etten’s unendingly heartwarming craft – it’s as worthless as her presence is priceless. And because live, I’ve got to admit it’s getting better. It’s getting better all the time.
We’ve yet to miss a Sharon Van Etten London showing in 2012, and although the night’s central protagonist – swathed in flowing monochrome – is more or less monosyllabic throughout her impassioned laments have only grown in stature as the arenas to house her have expanded accordingly. That’ll be exponentially, then. As the end of years continue to cascade in torrents, though their wild variations insinuate that 2012 may not have been the finest of vintages Tramp has been a mainstay of every which one I’ve yet seen. It needless to say features rather prominently in ours, too. Inevitably: it’s a once-in-a-decade kinda thang; forget twelve months. I’d worn a year’s listening into my copy in no more than a week, and it hasn’t strayed from needle nor laser since. The record is and was, and I acclaim without even an iota of hyperbole, unthinkably immaculate; the sonic paragon of perfection itself. Though I shan’t eulogise any further here – what’s done is done and to redo would just be dull, right?
This is about the here; the now – the medium a contemporary celebration of the then when Sharon was either to be found shacked up on sofas, or holed up in Aaron Dessner’s garage. So deep is our reverence for the record in question that the feel of an altogether celebratory evening often teeters on the fringes of the commemorative as we congregate to chip in our congratulatory 2¢ to Tramp. The giddy hiss and vehement seething of Serpents; the dusty boot stomp to Warsaw; the undeniably awe-inspiring benevolence of Give Out. Rich, yet stripped compositions worth their figurative weight in glinting precious metal. And a leaden emotional weight is that with which much of this is anchored down. Each a release of once repressed catharsis, the subject matter then weighed heavy – startlingly so – on her every human aspect. Which makes the sight of a bursting Empire with beams teeming down from its three balconies all the more impressive. Van Etten has done all this, and it’s all been done unwaveringly on her own terms. She’s earned this night – suffice to say there couldn’t be a naysayer out there to doubt that.
Though for a record so inspired by grief and the acceptance of rejection; of having to move on Tramp has over the course of 2012 proven itself to be a most welcoming listen. And the effect of this within a live context is to unite as we come together to sing in unison; to revel in her homely allure, as well as in her successes. So universally and widely heralded has the album been that it genuinely feels as though what was hers is now ours, and that comes inclusive of she herself. Which is surely the nub of what we find so unremittingly magnetising in music in the first place.
Tonight, we are those “eyes in the dark of the room” cited so scathingly in what is a compellingly underdone Give Out – glistening peepers protruding from the gloomy back of the stalls. Though this penetrative gaze is anything but investigative and hypercritical, and instead merely doe-eyed and doting. We fell for her long ago, thus tonight is purely, simply a consolidation of the infatuation. The last time our paths crossed, however, it took a knock. Midday, Saturday, 14th July, Latitude 2012. In the festival’s most sizeable indoor arena, she undid herself somewhat. For having really found herself with Tramp, she appeared to lose herself a little, engulfed as she was by the sheer enormity of it all. She was lost on that tent back then, at that time, and this seemed perhaps symptomatic of Sharon Van Etten the individual maybe being lost on those more broad of audiences. Tonight disproves that theory, rendering even the very notion wholly nonsensical. Apologies all round – no ifs, buts, nor maybes: I was wrong, to paraphrase.
Leonard fills the place, coming on strong like a barnyard waltz. Everyone needs a someone to really appreciate this dizzy whirl. She’s let her hair grow out long, that much I can discern above a muddy amalgam of blobby shadow and Magic Chords has changed with time, too. Live, it’s totally majestic; a true tour de force – a dolorous hum set above the limping, syncopated drums of Zeke Hutchins. Epic standout, Don’t Do It, has evolved likewise with its usual insistence amplified by a mantra-like vocal intro and harmonious solos from Heather Woods Broderick. Main set closer Joke Or A Lie, meanwhile, sees her assume an hitherto unprecedented nonchalance as its languid chimes ring around the lofty expanse with great gumption. It epitomises the degree to which she’s become comfortable both within her skin, and the sleeve keeping Tramp warm. This relaxed stance could become her new thing.
Though it’s something borrowed from elsewhere that, blue as ever and moreover wholly new, speaks volumes of a surely increasingly prosperous future. She avows to having taken the premeditated election not to talk too much tonight – a change to her usual, and usually droll badinage that’s accredited to an increased professionalism and whatnot – and this allows this as yet untitled composition to really take the reins. “This is a new song I’m working on”, she chirps with a newfound confidence. What follows is Van Etten at her most exposed – stranded, alone, stage-centre with only the softly buzzing spotlights to keep her ever expressive vocal company. It’s a natural successor to the majority of Tramp; a posthumous straggler to be interweaved with the fine beard of bedraggled critical acclaim the record has cultivated over time, and yet at the same time it’s an obvious outlier. Not least in that it harks back to the troubadouring days of Because I Was In Love, but because it is arguably her most striking and sublime piece to date: “Your love is killing me”, she bemoans gloriously and she ain’t half wrong – it’s agonisingly purdy start through finish.
Her acoustic gently weeps a chord progression that’s woebegone as though hunched over Jeff Buckley’s final resting place, though it’s its lyrical content that cuts us clean open: “Break my leg so I can’t walk to you/ Cut my tongue so I won’t talk to you/ Burn my arm so I won’t hold you/ Stab my eyes so I can’t see that you like it/ I let you walk over me.” It’s her ethos condensed down into perhaps her most impeccable minutes yet and, as she warbles, quivery as the sober hand of a dispo: “Fear love/ Taste blood/ Everybody needs to fear” she’s up there, articulating an itself sobering testimony of how an alluring sweetness may be found deep within even the most abhorrent of human relationships. Which, in effect, is precisely from whence her ever more monumental successes were first birthed.
It’s her default position, and as the night goes full circle she adheres to the hackneyed adage of if it ain’t broke… In her very own words: “All I can do is what I can/ With this pain you’ve given me/ Your love is killing me.” On these sorts of evidence, it’s doing anything but, as tonight alone, whilst wading through a mire of adulation she has come into her own, and fully arrived. Do we ourselves, her devout clan, like it when her “mind becomes diseased”? By the sounds of it, her songwriting sensibilities, if not her mind itself remain afflicted by the torment incurred by that most negligent and noxious of lovers and as insensitive as it may sound, she’s all the better for it. Still. Even years on.