Tramp, the emotionally candid third album from Brooklyn-based songwriter Sharon Van Etten, is a slow burn: most of the songs capture the intensity of the moments before a quietly smoldering tree becomes a raging wildfire. Take the lead-off single, “Serpents,” which begins with calmly strummed yet unmistakably ominous chords. Then it explodes into something blazing and defiant: “You enjoy sucking on dreams,” Van Etten seethes, “So I will fall asleep with someone other than you.”
Since her 2009 debut Because I Was In Love – which featured largely acoustic guitar work and her beguiling, cigarette wisp of a voice – Van Etten’s sound has become more expansive with each release. Tramp isn’t just her best yet, it’s also her most densely populated, boasting an impressive roster of indie guest stars like Beirut’s Zach Condon, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner (who contributes vocals on “Serpents”), avant-chanteuse Julianna Barwick, Walkmen drummer Matt Barick, and most prominently guitarist Aaron Dessner of the National, who also recorded Tramp in his Brooklyn garage-turned-studio.
Tramp may be an unflinching chronicle of a relationship gone sour (check out the exceptionally poignant “Give Out”: “It’s not because I always give up/ It might be I always give out”), but it’s at its most powerful when it’s about more than just getting burned; Van Etten also sings about gathering the courage to build something new on charred ground. “Time is what I would need,” she tells a new lover on “Leonard,” while the lively mandolin strums spring up like sprouts after a long winter. Tramp finds transcendence in its final act, with the sparse closer “Joke or a Lie” glimmering like a new dawn. “It’s bad to believe in any song you sing,” she sings on the penultimate track, but the resonant honesty of Tramp proves 12 times over just how wrong she is about that.