Sharon Van Etten’s Synth-Pop Celebration of Vulnerability

Remind Me Tomorrow, the Brooklyn singer’s fifth album, bustles with the feeling of disconnection conquered.

Sharon Van Etten press image
Ryan Pfluger

Piano chords descend at ritual pace, reverberating as if in a cathedral. A woman sings, her each word a weary quaver. “Sitting at the bar, I told you everything,” she begins.

Then: “You said, ‘Holy shit.’”

This is how Sharon Van Etten kicks off her fifth album, with a moment that marks the sole time I’ve LOLed—so much so that it required hitting pause—while listening to her. The Brooklyn songwriter, approaching cult veneration a decade into her career, typically makes music to cry to, and there’s plenty of that in “I Told You Everything.” But she starts with … maybe not a punch line, but certainly a punch. Like a comedian, she knows that a well-placed swear word can jab a hole in pretense, letting intimacy flood in.

Some singers open themselves up in their songs. Van Etten sings about opening herself up, despite her impulse to stay closed. As gutting a tune as any written in the 21st century, 2012’s “Give Out” placed a first flirtation with a stranger in the context of a lifetime of saying no to connection. A track on the artist’s debut record, in 2009, posed the question Why do I need to love someone? almost as a statement of resistance. Now, to open her new album, Remind Me Tomorrow, Van Etten shares a story about sharing a story with someone. Fear gives way to freedom; nervous confession becomes communion. “We held hands,” she eventually sings, and a mischievous guitar figure replies.

Indie rock is defined by characters like Van Etten: eloquent about their own lack of eloquence, emotional about repression. Mitski, the genre’s new standard-bearer, has found a fresh take on the taciturn cowboy. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy translates and then re-scrambles “speakers … speaking in code.” Even the wide-eyed motivational rock of Arcade Fire has foregrounded symbols of isolation: snowpacks, suburbs. With hip-hop’s real talk and Ed Sheeran’s plainspeak dominating the mainstream, this interest in inscrutability can read as defiant or deep—if also, often, a guarantee of irrelevance.

Van Etten’s voice, however, conveys that there’s still something to be said about not-saying. Though the artist’s tunes have pop sturdiness, they also blur and drift, edging from expected notes to weird ones. Sometimes Van Etten’s singing is like a clear stream whose flow is diverted, interrupted, by an obstacle. Or she’s like someone who’s about to broach something impolite, but then thinks better of it, substituting in some new topic. The intrigue is in the gap between where she’d been going and where she ended up.

But this is not music that’s so cryptic as to be difficult. The five years since Van Etten’s previous album have had her busy with acting, movie scoring, getting a psychology degree, and having a kid. Perhaps accordingly, Remind Me Tomorrow features a loosened-up, brighter-seeming vibe than what she’s known for. Synth-pop replaces strumming in many places, and the artist gravitates toward fat, fuzzy bass sounds. A couple of tracks, such as the distortion-swathed triumph of “Hands,” surprisingly recall the ’90s alt-rock band Garbage. The glistening “Seventeen” could almost be a lost Bruce Springsteen hit.

Amid the bustle, snatches of imagery and half-lucid conversation tease the ear. The spacious and swinging “You Shadow” might be a dialogue between sides of a psyche, with one preaching “Use loving words and be gentle and kind” and the other sneering “You ain’t nothin’.” On “No One’s Easy to Love,” Van Etten seems to mock her own angst: “I wish away my love, leave with the dawn / Acting as if all the pain in the world was my fault.” It’s a capital-A Anthem, swerving from queasiness to ecstasy with the feeling of hard-won celebration.

Remind Me Tomorrow, in fact, often feels like a celebration—perhaps thrown to enjoy what comes after vulnerability’s achieved. That great aforementioned opener, “I Told You Everything,” never really describes the substance of the “holy shit” story she refers to. But as the arrangement gathers force and weight and Van Etten sings of two people coming together, the obscurity seems less the point than the revelation. You can project your own secrets onto this music, and laugh at how it might feel to be unburdened by them.