Sharon Van Etten proves the adage that slow and steady wins the race. The saying describes the tempo of her music as well as her incremental improvement. Each new album is a little bolder than the last, though the songs remain built around the consistent core of her electric guitar — dirty, slashing, skeletal and yet somehow tasteful — and her impressive voice, which covers the whole range between fragile and formidable. The latter reigns on this astonishing fourth album, which casts a monumental shadow over her back catalog, and handily replaces the 2012 breakthrough Tramp as her best.
Van Etten has made no secret of the fact that her entry into music, 2009′s promising yet wispy debut Because I Was in Love, was delayed by the ravaging of her self-esteem by a toxic relationship. Her ascent since then has had less to do with the development of her talents than with her repaired confidence in letting them show. For quick evidence of her powers, skip to career highlight “Your Love is Killing Me,” in which her vibrato feels as if it could level a mountain.
Van Etten, who produced the album with help from Stewart Lerman, contrasts that force with the airy tenderness of “Our Love,” where her voice surfs on little more than a drum machine and a soft cursive line of phased electric guitar. Though accented with keyboards and occasional strings, her arrangements remain almost brutally spare, swelling and draining around her implacable voice like a sluice of dark, brackish water. She doesn’t need much backing to build a memorable melody, and she sums up her album’s divided heart over hard flecks of piano and drums: “I love you but I’m lost/ between the pain and cost.”
Van Etten’s singing here has a delirious power that can recall Joan Baez at her most flinty and hair-raising or Beach House’s Victoria Legrand at her most throaty, yet she frequently floats into a silky upper register that keeps her from sounding too invincible. Her lyrics resolve simple, vulnerable emotions into a steely complexity: “I need you,” she sings, “to be afraid of nothing.” If Van Etten still isn’t quite comfortable in love, neither is she destroyed by it. In the race against everything that’s ever held her back, she’s winning.