Sharon Van Etten – I Don’t Want To Let You Down

The world is changing and it’s becoming more and more impatient; hardly the most original point we’ve ever put to paper, but it’s true. In the post-internet age we expect more from our celebrities, we expect to hear every demo, every live performance, have unparalleled access to their lives, and know exactly when they head into the studio. All of which adds up to a situation where musicians are terrified of engaging in anything resembling down time. If you’re not on tour, and we know because we have access to all your tour dates, and can watch live videos and view photographs of every time you set foot on stage, and you’re not in the studio, which you should be detailing in some sort of video/photo diary that we expect you to share with a major online music site, then what the heck are you doing? You can see why Laura Marling wanted to take a couple of years off and do a poetry course and Robin Pecknold had decided to get a degree, if just to stop people asking when the new Fleet Foxes album is coming out!

This new found fear of downtime is also resulting in more and more stop-gap releases, one off singles, live albums, short throwaway EP’s, basically anything to keep the fans from turning up at your front door and demanding you play them every idea you’ve ever come up with. The only question is, are they a waste of time? The National recently released stand-alone single, Sunshine On My Back, a track to accompany a documentary made essentially to document their tour; both of which were nice distractions whilst the band toured the world, made a load of cash and came up with new ideas for what will eventually become their album, whilst making it seem like they’ve never been away, which is kind of ingenious if you think about it.

Perhaps the master of the “it’s not a new album but look I’m doing something” marketing scheme is Nick Cave, since his last record, 2013’s superb Push The Sky Away, he’s released a live album, a book about being on tour written on sick bags and a sort of a documentary but it’s kind of made up film about what it’s like being Nick Cave. Each of these releases being accompanied by touring, either alone or with The Bad Seeds.All Nick’s projects are fascinating of course but who can honestly they wouldn’t swap all of them for a new studio album?

It’s not an exclusively modern phenomenon of course, The Beatles were always mucking about doing whatever they fancied, The Who made films and documentaries and whilst Neil Young in his various guises has released seven new live albums and six archive projects, which is unquestionably pushing your luck! We guess great artists can get away with it, as long as they keep producing great albums in between all the stop-gaps.

SHARON VAN ETTEN – I DON’T WANT TO LET YOU DOWN
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Last year Sharon Van Etten released her fourth album, Are We There; a commercial and critical success story, it was arguably the highlight of her career to date, and continued on from her break through album, the brilliant Tramp. We liked Are We There so much that we made it our album of the year! Keen to capitalise on the momentum from her dark, brooding masterpiece, Sharon has moved quickly to plug the gap between that album and what’s to come next by releasing a new EP, I Don’t Want To Let You Down, consisting of tracks that could be seen as off-cuts from the Are We There sessions. These five tracks, a mere twenty two minutes in length, include a live version of a track demoed as long ago as the Tramp sessions, Tell Me. This should be the ultimate in throw away, unimportant releases, and it’s a testament to the quality and consistency of Sharon‘s work that it’s worth listening to at all.

As is often the case with these between album releases the tracks on show can loosely be divided into two distinct groups, those that are essentially versions of the same tracks on the album deemed too similar to be placed alongside them, and more interestingly, those that show a different side of an artists that doesn’t sit comfortably with their previous output. I Don’t Want To Let You Down fits the brief neatly, the title track and the beautiful piano ballad I Always Fall Apart could be seamlessly exchanged onto Are We There, whilst elsewhere via the almost trip-hop inspired Just Like Blood and electronic backed Pay My Debts there’s signs of an artist stepping into new territory, with sometimes thrilling results.

Sharon has always been a horribly honest lyricists, despite recently telling NPR, “I’m not very good at communicating my emotions” the evidence is completely to the contrary. Are We There was one of the most painful dissections of a struggling relationship ever put to record, and on I Don’t Want To Let You Down, Sharon is treading similarly emotive ground. I Always Fall Apart is particularly painful listen, a sister track to Are We There‘s excellent I Love You But I’m Lost it finds Sharon alone at a piano, picking out rich piano chords, that bring to mind Ryan Adams‘ excellent Sylvia Plath, as she examines her own flaws through a brutal lens,”You know it’s always been my heart, you know I always fall apart, it’s not my fault, it’s just my flaw, it’s who I am”.The song is sung to a lover who wanted to, “turn me into a museum” and, “kept me from the growing weeds, when all you wanted was the best for me” as was so often the case on Are We There, it’s a song where despite her best intentions Sharon couldn’t save what wasn’t meant be, and she now feels terrible for it, a break-up song told not from the viewpoint of the wronged party but the one who was in the wrong, Sharon noting, “I can’t believe the way I’ve been, I’ve been resentful and I’ve sinned” but concluding ultimately, “I need you now just as a friend.” It’s the raw honesty she possesses as a songwriter that is arguably her strongest suit and this is a fine example of that quality.

Elsewhere the EP perhaps lacks the punch of Sharon’s more polished album releases, the title track is a beautiful piece of music, but lyrically it’s full of vague sentiments, “I didn’t want to see the light”, “dreams were gone”, “it’s crazy how, I don’t wanna let you down” all of which add up to a snapshot of an unhappy past but paint little in the way of a detailed picture, indeed it’s a rarity for Sharon‘s work as a track that’s better enjoyed just as beautiful wash of sound. Musically it’s a truly wonderful thing, the intro, a slow build of instruments, guitars with a country twang, a steady drum beat,  a rumble of bass, the gentle strum of an acoustic guitar, and then a beautifully textural organ that Bob Dylan would be proud of, it gradually builds a perfect bed for her always beautiful vocal chords to weave melodies over, whilst the backing vocals, courtesy of Heather Woods Broderick, add a real sense of harmony, the whole thing is a gorgeous sway of sound, there’s even time for a warm, fuzzy guitar solo towards the songs latter section, all wonderful, rich, sonic brilliance.

Of the two musical departures, Pay My Debt is an attempt at the sort of ice-cold emotive, electornics perfected by The XX, but it just falls a bit flat, the high-tremolo picked guitars are ominous and nice enough but it doesn’t quite ever get our of first gear, and it’s Just Like Blood that is the more interesting of the two. Mixing vibrato organs with some fine piano work, there’s shades of trip-hop, and in particular Moby about it. The chorus a gentle sway, Sharon recalling how, “you shut me up just like a girl, then you run just like blood” as strings, played at least in part by Peter Broderick pulse in, sudden buzzsaws of rich sound. The outro is particularly great, high trilling piano notes taking the form of tiny drops of beautiful sound, before the strings take the song out in a style reminiscent of Nina Nastasia’s exploration in Eastern European folk music.

So what to make of this release? Ultimately it’s rather neatly summed up by the closing track, the live version of Tell Me; it’s not that it’s not good, in fact it’s very good, a beautiful live rendition of a song that was probably too good to never be release, but when you demoed it two albums ago, then released the demo on an extended version of the album, is there really much point to putting a live version out now? It’s a beautiful EP, but it’s not an important one, a welcome addition to her back catalogue that plugs a gap as we wait for new material, but in some ways it just makes that wait to hear where Sharon goes next all the more frustrating.

I Don’t Want To Let You Down is out now on Jagjaguwar. Sharon Van Etten plays Glastonbury festival.

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