Sharon Van Etten – Epic (Ba Da Bing)

Steeped in melancholy, Van Etten’s songwriting manages to convey a beauty which arises from such heartache and torment.

Released Oct 12th, 2010 via Ba Da Bing / By Simon Harper
Sharon Van Etten – Epic (Ba Da Bing) Brooklyn-based troubadour Sharon Van Etten’s second album, Epic, has a curious title which is surely designed to wrong-foot listeners. Barely stretching to just over half an hour, it’s not exactly going to test the patience or outstay its welcome. But what it lacks in length it more than makes up for in scope and emotional weight.

Van Etten embarked on her first tour of the UK back in 2008, supporting Espers’ vocalist Meg Baird, and ever since witnessing that brief but startlingly evocative set I’ve found myself captivated by the raw vulnerability of songs such as the beautiful yearning of ‘For You’.

On Epic, her hitherto feather-light voice often sounds more powerful and direct, though the seven songs collected here remain confessional. With its robust, full band feel it is reminiscent of What Would the Community Think?-era Cat Power, and there are some broad similarities between the two.

Certainly, the country-infused ‘Save Yourself’ and ‘Peace Signs’, with its cracked and electrifying thrust – taut guitar duelling with pounding drums – are the most notable examples which could easily sit alongside Chan Marshall, but Van Etten’s voice has an ethereal quality which transcends such comparisons, and her songs throb with a wounded intensity all of her own.

Steeped in melancholy, Van Etten’s songwriting manages to convey a beauty which arises from such heartache and torment, and the breathy ‘Don’t Do It’ lives up to the album’s title with its sweeping chorus, which is equal parts rousing and deeply poignant.

But the standout track is arguably the one which deviates most from the streetwise Americana which dominates these songs. ‘DsharpG’ is a pulsing mesh of droning melody and haunting, spare vocals, ebbing and flowing like a tone poem. It finds Van Etten at her finest, with the stark honesty of her lyrics laid bare alongside a musical backdrop which is equally sparse, though the sonorous drumbeat reverberates as if from a military procession.

If Van Etten’s recorded output doesn’t quite replicate the whispered beauty experienced when seeing her live, it still gives these songs plenty of room to breathe – Epic is an expansive record and takes her songwriting in a new and rewarding direction. And it’ll leave you breathless, wishing for more.