When Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There debuted in 2014, she became a revelation. Her fourth album displayed a mellow, confident New York riff on folk traditions with “Every Time the Sun Comes Up” and “Nothing Will Change.” Well, it’s 2019, and something indeed has changed with Van Etten.
Artists, like music, constantly evolve. And some songs on Van Etten’s synth-heavy Remind Me Tomorrow spotlight her signature melancholic voice. But the cacophony of empty, destructive noise, from blown-out bass to wobbling synthpop waves, maroons Van Etten’s vocals, letting them roll through the album like a remorseful tumbleweed.
Call it a cliché, but these electropop tracks lack the truth and sincerity of her folk-focused efforts. The droning instrumentation, rarely reaching past synths, keyboards and percussion, saps the songs of any sonic innovation or emotion. At first, in “I Told You Everything,” the album’s fresh soundscape feels deep and chasmal, and every key hits like distant water drip-dropping against Van Etten’s vocals. Synth tremors beneath the song, but it hasn’t broken through yet. There’s still blank space in the music, gaps between noise that induce a swaying motion.
But by the time the low-rider rev of “No One’s Easy to Love” extends into the trap-influenced “Memorial Day,” Van Etten’s album has begun to deflate. (Hearing Van Etten and “trap influence” in the same sentence is one of the most surreal things 2019 has brought us so far. What’s next — Lady GaGa’s releasing a polka album?) A later song, “Jupiter 4,” Van Etten named after the synthesizer. The song has lyrics, but they’re so forgettable that it had might as well be an instrumental piece.
“Comeback Kid,” a stylish, pulsing, pounding single whose lyrics — “See me look away, I’m the runaway/ I’m the stay-out-late, I’m recovering/ Kid at the top of our street” — suggest Butch Cassidy for the 21st century, and the bold, lofty sound thankfully adds verve to the dull selection. But even those lyrics aren’t anything to write home about. Van Etten’s perplexing ideas fall verses apart, and the chorus just repeats “comeback kid” for six lines (or, tantalizingly, perhaps “come back, kid” — grammar is so fun). The lyricism for Remind Me Tomorrow mostly falls short for an artist whose work normally swims in inspired songwriting.
But the better songs, Van Etten’s “love letter to NYC,” called “Seventeen,” and “You Shadow,” which begins with a delightful organ solo, spelunk into that cavernous sound she establishes in “I Told You Everything.” These songs require more of her than her crestfallen crooning, but they still feel underdeveloped.
There’s a strong temptation to criticize an artist for going in a different direction, but subversion doesn’t always mean disappointment. An artist stagnates without reinvention. And whereas the similarly folk-inclined West Coast band Lord Huron recently shifted into electric guitar brio and a more mainstream rock sound, the cosmic glee they brought to their lyrics remained. Van Etten hasn’t transferred her personality into this album. The magic is missing.
The closest Remind Me Tomorrow comes to being inspired is from the final song, “Stay.” It’s a lullaby to Van Etten’s daughter — “Imagining when you were inside/ When you made those kicks at night.” Personal like nothing else on the album, the song soars despite all that noise weighing it down.
To witness Van Etten perform tracks from Remind Me Tomorrow acoustically would be a tremendous treat. But for now, the album hopefully serves as experimentation for a more refined sound yet to come. Are We There may be one of the finest indie folk albums of recent years and a hell of an act to follow, and the somnambulant Remind Me Tomorrow simply huddles, despondent, in its shadow.