Each week, Lizzy Goodman guides you through the dirty streets of rock ‘n’ roll.
If the men of Brooklyn’s indie rock scene had a little sister it would be Sharon Van Etten. She’s collaborated with Bon Iver, Antlers and the National, and legend has it that once, when she tried to quit music and move home with her mom in Jersey, TV On the Radio’s Kyp Malone was the guy who talked her out of it. It’s good she stayed. Over the last few years Van Etten has released two strong albums (2009’s Because I Was In Love and 2010’s Epic) and is now mere weeks away from putting out her third, Tramp, which was produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner and recorded in his studio.
“Each note creates a new crack and at moments of almost crescendo it feels like the whole thing is going to splinter releasing all kinds of unknown and exciting new noise.”
It was with curiosity that I showed up to see Van Etten play at the Mercury Lounge on a recent frigid winter night. I’m intrigued by her, but I can’t say that I totally get it. So far I’ve been as interested in figuring out why the Brooklyn rock scene’s key figureheads put a collective welcoming and protective arm around her as in listening to her music. Which is not to say the songs aren’t good. They very obviously are. Van Etten writes and sings elegiac, oddball seepers the simple lyrics of which stick with you long after the YouTube tab is closed, but so what? Another smart, interior, singer songwriter from Brooklyn who likes the harmonium? Is that it?
The wind outside was so brutal it created a vacuum and the Merc’s front door made a sucking sound as I opened it and stepped inside. At first I thought maybe someone had just collapsed and I’d caught the crowd of 250 in that post-disaster, pre-action couple of seconds before they’d all jump into action. The place was that full and that still, everyone staring at one thing just a few feet in front of them, which I couldn’t quite make out. The thing, it turns out, is this woman, Van Etten, round and delicate and onstage holding the audience in a trance as she toggled from taut, muted song to self-depreciating interstitial banter (“I’m still learning how to hold it” she joked of what looked like a Ukulele) and back again.
Among the assembled were key members of the New York bloggerati, but it was the glam factor in Van Etten’s fans that really shocked me. Statuesque women in architectural earrings, shaggy haired brunettes with pink lips in fitted leather jackets worn over chunky extra-long sleeved sweaters. Aspiring pinup girls in giant vintage furs and aspiring American Apparel models in blanket-like Pendleton coats. These are the adorers of this diminutive young woman whose aesthetic is that of a bookish schoolgirl from a good Main Line family, all rumpled sweater-and-blouse sets, and thick tights.
“Let’s all pretend we’re happy,” the singer said, easing into another bleak number off the new record. Listening to her play is like watching a rock show from behind a thick wall of ice. Each note creates a new crack and at moments of almost crescendo it feels like the whole thing is going to splinter releasing all kinds of unknown and exciting new noise. But then it doesn’t. And yet the experience is totally compelling, like you are cheering on a come-from-behind underdog in the race of his or her life.
I don’t know if Sharon Van Etten will ever really step out and own up to her obvious talent. I don’t know for how long she will shroud herself behind these gauzy songs, letting her band take us just to the bring of spilling over into the expressive potential they ask for. But I do now better understand why all the cool Brooklyn boys are into this girl: Rooting for her feels like a moral cause, like a world in which she fully finds herself would be better for us all.