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.