words by tom johnson
header photograph by tom johnson
in-article photograph by ryan pfluger
It’s both believable and unbelievable that it was Tramp which propelled Sharon Van Etten’s music to a greater audience. Completely believable because of the sheer power of that record; a simmering concoction of heartbreak and musical brilliance that still takes the breath away some five years down the line. Unbelievable, too, because it stands as a finishing-tape to her half-hidden career up to that point, which included two astounding records that had somehow remained as under-the-radar, unheralded gems, despite sitting as beautifully crafted counterparts to the two-heavyweight records that preceded them; Tramp and it’s astounding follow-up Are We There.
While somewhat more skeletal and raw than those two records, both ‘epic’ and ‘(It Was) Because I Was In Love’ are striking works in their own right; the former certainly acting as a stepping-stone towards Tramp’s moody and colossal compositions, the latter, her heavy-hearted debut, a fragile lamentation on a bad relationship and her life surrounding it, led by that voice, which is as unadorned and moving here than it perhaps ever was and will be again.
Re-released this week, via a deluxe vinyl package that includes new liner notes, as well as an audio spruce-up, (It Was) Because I Was In Love’ perhaps sounds even more extraordinary with the benefit of hindsight, now we know what she went on to achieve from these most torn and solemn roots. Mostly centred around acoustic guitar and that most gut-churning of voices, the record is weighty recording; dead-of-night elegies that bristle with unrest, taking on ghost-like characters of their own; shadows moving silently in to shadows; dark upon dark. “Don’t cry for me,” she sings on the fragile ‘Keep’, but it’s hard to recall a record that so overwhelmingly guided you one way while leading you another. You could play these songs to someone without a single reference point within the English language and they could gauge the monumental sadness that sits at their core.
Without the lush, fuller production that was exquisitely introduced in to her sound, Van Etten’s voice here is painstakingly centre-stage, the kind of focal point you couldn’t look away from no matter how much you might want to; a car-crash in harrowing, pain-staking slow-motion; a bird trapped in flight.
We often categorise – usually unjustly – songs and records of this ilk as diary entries, but here it is somewhat the case. Van Etten pieced together both this and her ‘epic’ LP from a collection of songs she penned during her latter teenage years and early twenties, a puzzle constructed from pieces that seemed to make the most sense together; rugged and overlapping and far from flush. The sense of detached sadness is almost overwhelmingly prescient, these late night unravelings craved from the harrowing memory of something hugely changing left behind; the bustling storm before the calm found from, hopefully, eventually, moving onwards and upwards.
The shadow of being flattened by someone who is only ever supposed to inflate sits like the most consuming shadow upon every inch of this record. Van Etten has spoken of this relationship in numerous interviews in the time since this record’s release; of being told she wasn’t good enough, in being slowly broken by the person who she looked to for love and support.
The retrospect aspect of the record’s creation (it was written from a place of security, despite the lingering heartbreak) means that not only do we get details of the crushing lows but also see the movement away from it; Van Etten writing many of these songs when she had just moved back to her parents house for the first time.
It’s these tiny, sporadic glimpses of self-power that raise the record above unrelenting bleakness; for which there is still immeasurable amounts. In this regard, ‘Tornado’ is perhaps the record’s most powerful moment, a four-and-a-half minute storm at the centre of it all. “You never saw me as a reward. You didn’t know he did, And then you tried to win the bet,” it begins, winding its way through shifting terrains until its weighty conclusion, that finally allows a slither of a peak in to the eventual hereafter: “I’m a tornado, you are the dust; you’re all around and you’re inside. I’m a tornado; you are the fences that will fall but still surround me.”
In a 2014 interview with GoldFlakePaint, Van Etten said she was “still learning” when it came to writing songs as an act of cathartic release – she’s often stated that she sees her writing as a form of therapy, with most of it never seeing the light of day. “For the most part I don’t really share my deepest feelings,” she went on to say, a somewhat surprising aside considering the radiating sorrowfulness of so much her work, before adding: “It’s only when I think it might help other people.”
Which is, in itself, perhaps the key to both this record and Van Etten’s entire body of work. She’s so obviously been through it; her music a map of both struggle and survival, a chink of daylight after a life time of darkness. But it’s all handled with such great care, such consideration for herself and anyone who might listen, that her songs always manage to hold an ounce of preservation and fortitude, no matter how heavy the load gets. That’s why, as plain old listeners, as outsiders, we can find something in them more powerful than a simple pitying of the subject.
“Don’t cry for me. I can’t either. I can’t weep,” she sings with a wounding softness on the incredible ‘Keep’. “Remember these moments. They’re all we have. And all I can keep.”
The deluxe edition of (It Was) Because I Was In Love is out now
You can buy it here