Sharon Van Etten’s voice is often described as arresting, but I’m not sure that’s quite right. There’s something too slippery, too patient about her Southern-tinged soprano. In her review of Van Etten’s first record, Dusted’s Jennifer Kelly described Van Etten’s voice — rightly, I think — as reminiscent of a whole swath of 1960s folkies: “more grounded than Vashti Bunyan, less overtly jazzy than Linda Perhacs.” What’s interesting is how this pulls Van Etten to the center, both in terms of style and sensibility. It’s in this space that she neglects to arrest. Instead she issues stern warnings, hounds her listeners like Porfiry. It’s the long game; the more one listens, the better it works.
“Crime,” the opening track to the 30-minute Epic, is a bit of modest bombast from a singer who eschews salvos. A two-chord strum in which Van Etten lashes out at a lover (“To say the things I want to say to you would be a crime”) and lets the recoil snap back (“Never let myself love like that again”), it sounds like decaf coffeehouse the first few times. Then it lodges in the brain, the result, somehow, of how the Tennessee-born singer draws out certain syllables (“I’d rather let you touch my arm until you die”).
Working forward through the record, one notices the instrumentation swelling subtly: thumping toms and vocal counterpoints on “Peace Sign,” credible as a Moon Pix outtake (Van Etten sometimes sounds like a scraped-knee kid sister to Chan Marshall); elegant piano and steel flourishes on “Save Yourself” (a highlight); druggy tambourine and harmonium on “Dsharpg.” With each listen, Epic comes a little closer to living up to its name; Van Etten’s failure to occupy a new niche transforms imperceptibly into a singular talent for inhabiting so many existing ones so capably. By the time “One Day” comes around, the two-chord coffeehouse strum has transformed into a simple, reverberating Velvets figure, Van Etten splitting the vast difference between Moe Tucker and Nico right down the middle. She wraps up with “Love More,” a droning psych-folk lament that hits a vulnerable note just as it expands our notions of her range.
Where Because I Was In Love nodded primarily to ’60s-folk influences, Epic pulls from more corners. The voice at the center isn’t arresting, exactly, but in the end that’s unimportant. You’ll want to stay.