Music Reviews

Don’t Focus on the Narrative: Sharon Van Etten’s REMIND ME TOMORROW Is a Triumph On Its Own Accord

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Genre: Indie Rock

Favorite Tracks: “Memorial Day,” “Seventeen,” “No One’s Easy to Love,” “Comeback Kid,” “Stay”

REMIND ME TOMORROW is an album that has, for better or for worse, largely been defined thus far by its narrative place in Sharon Van Etten’s personal life. This is a phenomenon seemingly unique to female artists, mainly in the pop realm (think LEMONADE, REPUTATION, everything Ariana Grande has done in the past year, etc.), but it seems to have extended to REMIND ME TOMORROW in a way that is not necessarily fair to it. There are some positive aspects to this tendency, for sure: it allows the aforementioned mega-famous women to exhibit some agency over the fact that they live in a world that feels entitled to scrutinize and know in detail every aspect of their personal lives, which seems to be a good thing. Even better, it allows them to be rewarded for enduring that never-ending cycle of female pop stardom. Van Etten is not nearly this level of famous, but it seems on the surface that she could use those tactics to her advantage, knowing that her newest album would require a bold reveal. And boy, did she give us one, with the promotion and video for lead single “Comeback Kid” revealing a new, glammed-up look and exhibiting a level of confidence that just did not exist in her old work.

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But even though she’s not a stadium-filling pop star, her absence from music has led to an unusual amount of curiosity about her personal life, and thus a popular critical narrative that shrouds this album and, in my humble opinion, unfairly diverts attention away from how fucking good it is. Van Etten’s been busy living a life outside of music for a few years, and to an extent, it makes sense to seek personal insights in her music, which has drawn heavy inspiration from personal relationships in the past. But she hasn’t been away that long. ARE WE THERE, her excellent breakthrough record, came out in May 2014. And just for comparison’s sake, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig has followed a pretty similar career arc since releasing MODERN VAMPIRES OF THE CITY one year earlier in May 2013—he dipped his toe into the television industry, had a child, and took time off from making music for himself—while being allowed to let his new music speak for itself. The point here is this: it’s not inherently bad to recognize the greater narrative that surrounds REMIND ME TOMORROW, but don’t let the story of Sharon Van Etten the person distract you from the fact that she has made an album that is an immediate contender for 2019’s best album, and had it been released just a month earlier, may have been 2018’s best.

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So—the album itself. There’s been a clear transition from folk-influenced backing tracks to a more synth-heavy style, and it suits Van Etten quite well. Those who are returning megafans won’t be totally disappointed, though, as “Malibu” and “You Shadow” wouldn’t sound out of place on ARE WE THERE. But for the most part, the synths give her music a notably darker tone, and as a whole, REMIND ME TOMORROW blows all previous Van Etten records out of the water with its gravitas. The lyrics still trend a bit personal, with many of the record’s songs being spoken to a particular second person, but these are balanced much better than in the past with more self-reflective songs like “Seventeen” and “Comeback Kid” that help to ground the record even further. Each song on this record is, individually speaking, a really interesting musical moment that carries truly unexpected influences: “Memorial Day” has the sparse percussion and pitch-dark mood of Low’s DOUBLE NEGATIVE while being, perhaps, a bit more melodically accessible. “No One’s Easy To Love” has a devastatingly effective late-90s industrial beat that is paired with shimmery indie guitars and a lovely floating melody that make it one of the record’s standout songs.

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And it would be remiss to not highlight “Seventeen” and “Comeback Kid,” one of the strongest one-two punches in terms of single releases in a long, long while, as an interesting turn in Van Etten’s career. These are songs that show that she’s stretched her range significantly on this record into the kind of muscular, toe-tapping songwriting that finds its way into legitimate radio play. “Comeback Kid” is the more abrasive of the two, and both lyrically and musically, it is a clear and effective demand for respect. Even though it absolutely demands a place on an arena stage, “Seventeen” dips its toe into more reflective territory, a letter to Van Etten’s past self that paints a picture of a journey from a nervous teenager in awe of the world to now. It borrows some cues from the Killers’ more Americana-tinged moments, and is impressive in how it’s equally vulnerable and confident.

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This is the album that should fire Sharon Van Etten to indie rock stardom, and given that female indie rock stars are bizarrely limited in number, it would not be a surprise to look back in a year and see that REMIND ME TOMORROW has done for Van Etten what BOXER did for The National or LOST IN THE DREAM did for the War on Drugs. This record is a testament to the value of challenging and altering one’s creative process as a musician, as even though those things are a risk, they can also take you to previously unknown heights. And ultimately, even if it is the narrative of Van Etten’s career and of this album that pulls people into it, they will find a personal statement that is honest, empowering, heartbreaking, intimidating, and awe-inspiring all at once.

Adam Cash
Adam Cash lives in the woods and grew up playing music in barns with other strange woods children. Fortunately, moving to California showed him that the rest of the world largely ignores Toby Keith, and thus, life is worth living.

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