Being a competent musician and solid songwriter is nice, sure, but it's also not uncommon. Oftentimes, notoriety requires a lot more—some luck, that haircut, a costume, a controversy, anything to make one's self stand out from the rest of the pack and gain some attention. Whether coming of age in the era of The Ed Sullivan Show or the MP3 blog, an artist often needs something with which to bait the hook and catch an audience in order to move past a circuit of local dives and haunts.
In some ways, New York songwriter Sharon Van Etten lucked out because she didn't have to radically alter her image or identity to get people to pay attention to her remarkably sensitive warble; her extra-musical hook happens to be her life story. If you've read anything about Van Etten (something an encounter with any of her three magnetic, inquisitive albums certainly might inspire you to do), her particular trials and tribulations are memorable enough to make the previous use of "lucked out" seem awfully cynical.
Even if you don't know the particulars, the beats will sound familiar: She left home, wanting to make music, only to get involved with a long-term unsupportive boyfriend who belittled her musical ambitions. She subsequently severed the ties with said unsupportive boyfriend to return home, pursue her dreams, move to New York and be discovered. Now, she's at the threshold of stardom, and he's the punchline of most every piece of writing about her. Sucks, dude.
Van Etten's inspirational fable transcends genre or medium, the sort of thing that any savvy promoter or PR firm would leverage to the fullest. Last week, as Van Etten prepared the release of her third album, The New York Times Magazine recited this particular tale, just as astute music critics did in 2009 when Van Etten released her first record on the tiny independent label Language of Stone, run by musician and producer Greg Weeks. The story has worked exactly as expected; now, she's ready to move past it.
Sometimes such "hooks" take on a life of their own, though, and overshadow (if not totally subsume) both the music and the musician. Lana Del Rey—the firebrand of music criticism at the start of 2012—provides the perfect example of how this plan of attack can backfire. A singer/songwriter formerly known as Lizzy Grant and now self-proclaimed as a "gangsta Nancy Sinatra," Del Rey recently landed on the fast-track to fame thanks to a carefully cultivated public persona and a handful of songs that (whether good or not) garnered the attention of all the right people. The rising buzz soon gave way to reports of spotty live performances, an audacious if uneven full-length debut (Born To Die, her first LP under her nom de plume), and a now-infamous performance on Saturday Night Live. Often tainted with a distasteful sexist slant, the negativity has swollen to the point that it might take more digging than necessary to learn that Born To Die will likely debut at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 with sales of at least 60,000 while sitting atop the iTunes charts in 11 countries.
Del Rey naysayers, of course, will attribute those numbers to a victory of style over substance. That's what happened when Liz Phair fans turned up their collective nose when the former underground stalwart attempted a wholly calculated—and not entirely successful—pop crossover in 2003. Not coincidentally, Phair recently vouched for Del Rey, writing in the Wall Street Journal that "the uncomfortable feelings she elicits are simply the by-product of watching a woman wanting and taking like a man." On the other hand, Madonna's ability to transform her narrative and assimilate the newest thing before it became noteworthy was sometimes more profound than the music she was producing.
But that's the exception—the rare female story-shifter who becomes bigger than her criticisms. As Phair hints, the music industry generally remains the dominion of men, making it harder for women to buck certain preconceived notions. From David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust to Garth Brooks' Chris Gaines, plenty of males have used new identities as commercial bait, for better and worse. Bon Iver's Justin Vernon is actually the perfect male parallel for Van Etten, as he too was a heartbroken singer/songwriter who used his story to cast his songs to a broader audience. In terms of public perception, at least, he soon moved past that, though, jumping from simple cabin-bound troubadour to Kanye West collaborator and Grammy Awards snubber in just a few years. It's time for Van Etten to do the same; her latest, Tramp, suggests she already has.
Because her terrible old boyfriend inspired Van Etten to pursue such charmed music, it's very convenient to frame songs like Because I Was In Love's earnest and plaintive "Much More Than That" or epic's punishing and unflinching "A Crime" within that lovesick narrative. Even the title of her third album, Tramp, has sometimes been construed as a not-so-veiled shot at that jerk. But Tramp—the title, the album, its songs—begs a deeper look. "The title is a coy way to evoke life on the road," explained Times writer Wm. Ferguson in his recent piece. "Van Etten says she was considering calling it 'Transience,' but she was after something tougher."
Musically, this new album doesn't feel that much different than the modestly lowercase epic, especially since Van Etten took her biggest creative steps to date between Because and epic. While a fine record in its own right, Van Etten's debut is much what one might expect from an acoustic singer/songwriter. While the people behind epic aren't that different from those that made Because, including producer Weeks, Van Etten's growth is obvious at every turn. She leans into a vindictive line just as easily as she offers a sweet emotion. She conveys both strength and vulnerability with an effortlessness that becomes easy to take for granted.
Tramp might seem like more of the same kind of wonderful, just with a different cast of characters—The National's Aaron Dessner, who produced the album, as well as Julianna Barwick and members of Beirut, Wye Oak and The Walkmen. With all this help, plus Dessner's ability to decorates the tunes with flattering musical accouterments, Van Etten runs the risk of getting lost within the talent shuffle. But Tramp's the kind of album whose truest charms—sly turns of phrase, moments where the lyrics and music dovetail perfectly together, Van Etten's deceptive strength as a singer—reveal themselves with repeated listens. These strengths uncover a singer/songwriter who, while singing about love and loss and hurt, now has command over those tales; those stories don't stand a chance of overtaking the music they informed.
Tramp is the first of Van Etten's records to put her face front-and-center on the cover, not as an illustration but as a stark and beautiful photograph; this is now her story, not someone else's interpretation of it. Soon, the rest of us might follow her lead, putting her ex in the past, decidedly where he belongs. Van Etten's music no longer needs him.