Sharon Van Etten - "Tornado" (Because I was in Love)
Sharon Van Etten has a soft, strong soprano that trembles with slight vibrato in the long sustained notes. High, angelic, disembodied, without audible strain or breath, she traces out melodies, yet just when the tone seems too pure, she slips into the smallest earthy slides, the slightest Appalachian catches and yodels, an angel trying out the blues. You could imagine her as one of the 1960s’ long-lost flower children – more grounded than Vashti Bunyan, less overtly jazzy than Linda Perhacs, but in the same family. Still there’s a touch of modernity, of self-direction and self-reliance in her work that places her firmly in the here and now.
Because I Was in Love is Van Etten’s first full-length, following a series of hand-made, tour-only EPs that she fashioned out of used paper bags and paint, and a limited edition EP released by Abaton Book Company. Some shared dates in early 2008 with Espers’ Meg Baird brought her to the attention of Greg Weeks, and he brought her into his Hexham Head studio for this debut recording. But while Because I Was in Love is her first professionally recorded album, it retains an effortless natural quality, as if Van Etten had been caught singing to herself in a dusty, sunlit room. Barely there arrangements of picked guitar, doubled harmonies and counterpoints, a little organ now and again, frame these songs in the most minimal of ways, allowing listeners to concentrate on limpid melodies. There is a caressing sort of silence under this recording, a living breathing room tone that fills in the spaces with soft, plush matting.
All 11 songs are originals, written in Van Etten’s deceptively simple style, with long sensual sustained notes and sudden flights of melody. Water pure folk melodies (“Much More than That”) alternate with rougher, bluesier laments (“For You”), and bits of country, pop and English folk flit in and out of focus. Less is more here, with only the subtlest accents of guitar, percussion and keyboards. Although Van Etten works primarily alone, she builds fragile textures out of looped self-harmonies. A high, hair-raisingly croon of “oo-oooh” rises out of the soft chorus of “Much More than That”; later the strong melodic line is smudged with charcoal shadings of delicate harmonies. And yet, though the tone is ethereal, the lyrics are grounded and real. Van Etten describes lovers feet touching in bed (“my toe hit your toe lightly / your toe met my heel right back / and I don’t think I need much more than that”) with a specificity that conjures a whole narrative of trust and comfort with one another. Later, in “Tornado”, a slow-moving country ballad, she builds one of the records’ best sustained metaphors, likening herself to the natural power of a twister, her lover to the strictures that try to keep her in check. “I’m a tornado / you are the fences that will fall but still surround me,” she sings, in a voice as traditional and melancholy as Patsy Cline’s, but in lyrics that are 21st century empowered.
This is a remarkable album, quietly riveting, translucently pure, and infused with eccentric intelligence. Add Sharon Van Etten to the list of women who are often pegged as simply “beautiful voices”, but who are, in fact, much more than that.