‘Remind Me Tomorrow’ has the urgency of today

Sharon Van Etten’s newest album is her most sonically ambitious

sharon-van-etten-belly-up-2012

Sharon Van Etten performs at a show in August 2012.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Sharon Van Etten has built her career around the concept of the slow burn. This is exemplified in her previous album “Are We There,” an 11-track immersion into folk style, which solidified the singer-songwriter’s career — inoffensive rambling of guitar chords underneath Van Etten’s unmistakable, sultry croons. The album’s title, along with its black-and-white, blurry cover art of a contented car passenger, suggests that Van Etten wants to take listeners on a journey. The album succeeds in doing so, and beautifully, but ends as ambiguously as it began. It would be boring if it weren’t so lovely to listen to.

If 2014’s“Are We There” is an endless journey to be played on loop, then 2019’s “Remind Me Tomorrow” finds Van Etten reaching an unexpected destination. The album opens with the misleadingly quiet “I Told You Everything.” Vibrating piano chords are paired with Van Etten’s lyrics that place her at a bar with a friend. Halfway through, however, the track bursts into the electronic, synth-based sound that will inundate each following song. Van Etten’s lyrics rise in intensity to match the music — “I told you everything about everything / I had no idea, I had no idea.” The repetition calls to mind the pleasant, continuous drone of “Are We There,” but nothing else is familiar. It’s startling and anything but boring, but is it lovely? Is Van Etten’s drastic shift in style merited?

Albums of this nature often rely too heavily on shock value. Once indie artists reach moderate success and acclaim, many venture into experimental territory for an album or two. Frequently, these ventures sound “experimental” in the sense that they are mere experiments, nothing more, and the artists in question return to a more reliable, predictable sound.

“Remind Me Tomorrow” is a magnificent break from this restrictive trope. There’s a real urgency here — one that ebbs and flows from track to track in typical Van Etten fashion — but an urgency nonetheless, which demands serious study. From “I Told You Everything” onwards, Van Etten makes clear that this is no idle fooling around in the studio.

On “Are We There,” the songs tend to blend together peacefully. On “Remind Me Tomorrow,” each track is a standout, for better or for worse — and it is largely for the better.

“Comeback Kid,” the first single released in advance of the album, also feels like its core anthem. A fast-paced beat — which, considering Van Etten’s previous style, is breakneck pace — fits nicely alongside gleaming electric guitar and synchronized synth. Van Etten’s vocals ring brassily throughout the track as she sings about the titular “kid” who, as it slowly becomes clear thanks to her characteristically oblique lyrics, is herself. “Don’t look back / Don’t look back / Don’t look back / Watch me run away,” she belts out during one of the choruses, words which speak to her radical change in style.

“Stay,” the final track of the album, carries the weight of all the experimental sound and technique that came before it. It’s perfectly up to the task, blending a peaceful melody shared between guitar, soft percussive elements and organ-esque synth with Van Etten’s iconic harmonies. The lyrics are some of the most beautiful and accessible of “Remind Me Tomorrow,” too — “Stay” is addressed to Van Etten’s child, born sometime in the five-year hiatus between albums, but the words apply to both mother and offspring. “Don’t wanna hurt you / Don’t wanna run away from myself,” she sings early in the song, and closes with the lines, “You, you love me either way / You stay.” 

At 41 minutes, “Remind Me Tomorrow” is Van Etten’s shortest album since 2010’s “Epic” — an album whose dreamy folk rock is almost unrecognizable compared to the sonic styling of 2019. They’re vastly different, but comparably memorable, and Van Etten is asking fans to make the leap from one to the other — to make the change as she has. 

Change or fluctuation is one of the most identifiable themes in “Remember Me Tomorrow.” So much has changed since Van Etten’s folksy beginnings — not just sonically and lyrically, in her music, but in her personal life as well — and she feels the need to record it all. Five years of accumulated experience shine through in the 11 songs. It was a poignant and powerful choice, then, to end with “Stay,” an ode to an enormous change in Van Etten’s life but also the promise of a constant.

“You love me either way,” she sings, and she could be referring to her audience just as easily as to her child. The new style might be an unsettling shift, but any fan of Van Etten willing to listen will find that “Remind Me Tomorrow” deserves just as much attention as her previous work — if not more.

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