Sharon Van Etten has certainly been busy since 2014’s 'Are We There'. In those four years, she’s had a child, started studying for a degree in mental health counselling, taken up acting with roles in The OA and Twin Peaks: The Return, and even written some music for film and TV. That’s a lot of life lived and, as someone who so evocatively captures those little moments in between the big ones, Van Etten had a lot to work with.
With all that change also comes a need to break the mould. To refresh, reset and start again. For her fifth album, 'Remind Me Tomorrow', Van Etten put down the guitar and laid down the bones of the album on keys. It may have just been an attempt to break out of a writing rut, but it’s also transformed Van Etten’s sound to a place she’d only previously dipped her toes in.
Opening track 'I Told You Everything' gives us a taste of this shift, but it’s all the more apparent in 'No One’s Easy To Love'. The twinkling synths, skittering drum beats and thumping bassline feel more Beach House than they do Van Etten. It makes it feel as though we are viewing the revelations of the song’s character from an elevated position, floating somewhere among the darkness below rather than on the ground with them.
With her career breakthrough 'Tramp' and 'Are We There', Van Etten always put us at ground zero of these events, present in the moment and as close to the fallout as we can bear. But, with such a breadth of time to cover, 'Remind Me Tomorrow' seems to shift time around it.
The haunting layered vocals of 'Memorial Day', for example, create a hall of mirrors, reflections on reflection on reflections, until it becomes difficult to discern where the original stands. It slowly becomes clear that Van Etten has become more concerned with the mental state that surrounds moments rather than the moments themselves. Jumping around past, present and future in search of a way out.
'Seventeen' sees Van Etten’s voice become both surprisingly and aptly reminiscent of Brandon Flowers’ on the introspective 'Sam’s Town'. Here she delves way back to her youth to find out how she got to where she is today. It’s all backed by an energy that we haven’t really seen from Van Etten before.
Even 'Jupiter 4', which goes back to the slow, meditative style that has punctuated Van Etten’s career, is a thrilling departure, driven by a droning synth. Where before tracks like this would almost feel like an exorcism, with some glimmer of hope no matter how murky things might get, 'Jupiter 4' is overtaken by a malevolence.
"Baby baby baby / I’ve been waiting, waiting, waiting my whole life / for someone like you" she sings on the song’s chorus, but it’s dripping in darkness. It’s as though she’s finally reached that glimmer of hope, but it’s changed absolutely nothing. Now, if anything, this love is just another thing to worry about in the world. It’s as unsettling as it is romantic; the grim reality of anxiety even in a loving relationship laid bare.
Being less focused on the present moment, as with 'Are We There', somewhat lessens the impact of those big emotional moments. The detachment means there’s nothing here that hits quite as hard as 'Your Love Is Killing Me', perhaps the gold standard of Van Etten’s emotionally charged songwriting. It can sometimes become difficult to latch on to any one event for it to truly strike at your heart in quite the same way.
But, at the same time, it reveals more of Van Etten that you might expect. Not only is it a display of new musical qualities we haven’t seen before, revealing a more peculiar beauty to her music, but it reveals a new side of the events she’s written about before. We delve further into them, exploring their long-reaching effects and impacts.
What it lacks in emotional heft, it makes up for in spirit. Sometimes change is good. In 'Remind Me Tomorrow', it’s electrifying.