When Sharon Van Etten issued the ironically titled seven-song Epic in 2009, it stood in stark contrast to her 2007 debut, Because I Was in Love. On the latter record, she employed a full-on rock band, her songwriting gained a more defined precision, and her singing voice -- even at its most vulnerable -- seemed to speak with a confidence that didn't seem to need any frame of reference other than its own. Tramp is titled for the period of post-relationship uncertainty and the period of homelessness Van Etten experienced during its 14-month recording process. Produced by the National's Aaron Dessner, who puts the songwriter's fine singing voice front and center, it features guest appearances by Zach Condon, Julianna Barwick, and more. "Warsaw," with its jagged electric guitars, bass, halting keyboards, and primitive, tom-tom heavy drums, is a shambling illustration of what's to be found here. Van Etten's protagonist is still vulnerable, but she wills herself toward a horizon past it. Likewise, the set's first single "Serpents," with its rumbling guitars and cracking snares, frankly discusses being physically and emotionally abused, but it comes from the other side, her protagonist is out of the situation, refusing to be a victim. Jenn Wassner's backing vocals in every line transform this into an anthem of survival. Not everything here falls down the rock & roll rabbit hole, however. Acoustically driven ballads such as "Kevin's," "All I Can," and "Leonard" highlight her subject's character defects and vulnerabilities as well as those of her significant other's. Van Etten's lyrics accuse as much as they confess and empathize. More often than not, her subject is the one who leaves, rather than the one left; the reasons are myriad: betrayal, co-dependency, a willingness toward an emotional freedom that allows love itself to dictate what it expects. There is great beauty on Tramp, especially in its last third; from the jaunty, acoustic stroll of "We Are Fine" to the multi-textured, nearly psych-pop of "I'm Wrong," to the airy, drifting closer "Joke or a Lie." For all this, Van Etten skirts the edges of giving us a great album without actually delivering one. Perhaps it's the exhaustive, confessional nature of its songs, its reliance on three basic melodic ideas, or even its length. Whatever the reason(s), Tramp doesn't quite fulfill its considerable promise. But this isn't a criticism; Van Etten is still a young, developing songwriter who gets more sophisticated with each album. As such, Tramp offers plenty for listeners to enjoy as she goes.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek