Suspenseful storyteller reels listeners in

Sharon Van Etten
Sharon Van Etten

Sharon Van Etten (above) is a maestro of suspense - that emotional pay-off delayed, hanging, killing you. Nevertheless, how one faithfully hangs on her every word, sometimes rolled out with (feigned) nonchalance, or world-weariness. She is a storyteller nonpareil, deftly reeling in the unsuspecting with a droll turn of phrase.

And the New Jersey-born native has certainly kept her fans waiting - five years, since 2014's Are We There, a slo-mo chronicle of a toxic decade-old relationship combusting.

Her fifth album, Remind Me Tomorrow - named after the pop-up computer option to postpone a software update - boasts the same surgical approach to human relations. You'd be forgiven to think that it's devastating business as usual, cathartic and crunchy indie guitars and all, a minute into the first track, I Told You Everything.

"Sitting at the bar, I told you everything/You said, 'Holy s***, you almost died,'" she sings over doleful piano plonks and you almost luxuriate in her stately reveal.

That is until 1min 29sec in, when a menacing thrum of the drum breaks the calm, sending off ripples across the surface.

You can thank in-demand producer John Congleton for that casual approach to messing things up. After all, Van Etten herself has changed. She turned her back on music, went back to school to study psychology, fell into acting by accident and became a first-time mum in 2017.

"Too much has changed, I can't let you walk in in the night/I wish away my love, leave with the dawn," she declaims in the electro-sounding kiss-off No One's Easy To Love.

Whereas in the past this will most likely be delivered in a sparse acoustic backdrop, this time a febrile drum beat and distorted riffs shore up her realisation that she has no one to rely on except herself.

On Jupiter 4, named after the Roland synthesizer used for most of the album, her usual stateliness is cast against increasingly unsettling sounds. A theremin-like synth snakes through her intoxicating chant - "A love so real" - as if we are all stuck in a purgatorial state between dream and awakening. "It's true that everyone would like to have met," she coos and wheezes unexpectedly in a Tex-Mex dirge gone sci-fi.



    Sharon Van Etten


    4 stars

These detours create the greatest impact precisely because they are well-timed and sparingly used.

Whether it's the moody lullaby Stay for her son or herself becoming the Comeback Kid in her home town, time casts a long shadow over her and the people around her.

In Seventeen, a new-wave pop doozie that may or may not be an older Van Etten doling out advice to a younger version of herself, she remains cool and collected till the penultimate verse when she lets it rip. "You'll crumble it up just to see/Afraid that you'll be just like me," she snarls out each syllable. Drums hit harder and there is no distance between young and old.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 31, 2019, with the headline 'Suspenseful storyteller reels listeners in'. Subscribe