Recently, I’ve felt haunted. Maybe it’s the Benadryl dreams, or my deepening fascination with astrology, or my long-overdue first reading of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but the ghosts of my past, and even of my present, have started to creep into my subconscious. And while these kind of prolonged meditations on the phantoms of the past can help bring to light the parts of ourselves we often prefer to keep in the dark, the benefits of these reveries can grow toxic when left unchecked. There is a power in learning to simply let go, and that kind of power is the driving force behind the new music of Sharon Van Etten.
Emerging tall from darkness into flashing red stage lights, wearing a dark gray pantsuit and her signature shaggy hair, Van Etten welcomed the sold-out crowd at Union Transfer last night with outstretched arms, in a manner slightly evocative of Patti Smith. Surrounding this open demeanor however, was the dark, undulating thunder of the synthesizers behind her – a sound that appears on almost every track of Van Etten’s wildly popular and mildly divisive new record, Remind Me Tomorrow. Formerly associated with the folk singer-songwriter genre, Van Etten took a left turn with her style after a five-year break from her music, over the course of which she explored acting, pursued a degree in psychology, found a new partner, and became a mother.
But while these events and explorations certainly fed into the creation of Remind Me Tomorrow, Van Etten spends a great deal of the record confronting her past, specifically in songs like “Seventeen” and “Comeback Kid,” both of which wonder about the evanescence of youthful freedom, and whether it’s always just a naive dream. It’s these songs that are the grittiest, and the ones that had Van Etten wailing wide-eyed into the microphone and fist-pumping to the pounding drums and screeching synths last night. Deeply cutting lyrics have always been a highlight of Van Etten’s work, but now those same reckonings are echoed with a scratchy distortion partially inspired by her collaboration with John Congleton, the producer of acts like fellow synth-rocker St. Vincent.
Despite this departure from her former, more guitar-centric sound, Van Etten and her band were able to not only reproduce the spookiest new tracks in a live setting, but even add a new dimension to them with sporadic sprinklings of synthesized improvisations, and most notably, the use of some bar chimes in “Memorial Day.” Van Etten hasn’t been on the road for some time now, and her nervous excitement to play songs old and new was obvious in her unending expressions of thanks to the audience and the elongated, self-assuring exhalations picked up by her microphone before she sang some songs, including an emotional cover of Sinéad O’Connor’s “Black Boys On Mopeds.”
To be in Van Etten’s presence is to witness an overwhelming effort in the practice of gratefulness – of recognizing, acknowledging, and appreciating the power and the value of life itself, even when certain elements of it may seek to harm us. After ending the main set on “Stay,” the closing track of Remind Me Tomorrow, she returned to for a three-song encore that started with Remind’s opener, “I Told You Everything,” which is perhaps the most vulnerable song on the entire record. In the face of the pain of past relationships, stories that elicit a reply of “Holy shit, you almost died,” from her partner, Van Etten still finds a way to open up, and more importantly, to let go. As she threw a small, warmly colored arrangement of flowers over the crowd to end the night, I could’ve sworn I saw tears welling up in her eyes. Approaching 38 years old, Van Etten now carries the wisdom and composure that mark all strong women of these years, yet most inspiring to me is her ability to return to that freedom she sings of in “Seventeen,” unleashing her choruses with a scream across the room like a fearless lion.
This wildness, this energy, was something I didn’t know I needed. So often is the anxious push-and-pull between past and future exhausting to the point of near paralysis. Van Etten’s performance last night was the beginning of what I hope will be a lesson in letting such anxieties go, in learning to move on from the negativity of past events while still carrying the essence of those experiences with me, and striving to be grateful. There will undoubtedly be some days when such negativity must be reckoned with, but until that day comes, I will prioritize the freedom of which Van Etten sings. I will still recognize the daily and constant pressure to be efficient, ordered, and clean, but now also try to find fulfillment in the mess of chaos, of looking in the face of some responsibilities and blithely saying, “remind me tomorrow.” — SOPHIE BURKHOLDER