This essay is running as part of the 2019 Uproxx Music Critics Poll. Explore the results here.
Of all the surprises that Sharon Van Etten brought us with Remind Me Tomorrow, the first was that it existed.
Since the release of her acclaimed 2014 album Are We There, the New Jersey-bred songwriter has practically lived a whole lifetime in five years, an impressive achievement for someone that already seemed like an old soul upon introduction. She’s begun an acting career, appearing in two seasons of the Netflix sci-fi drama The OA, while simultaneously going back to school to get her degree in psychology. As if embarking on two new careers wasn’t enough, she also gave birth to a son two years ago. As the years went by without a follow-up to Are We There and news began to spread of everything she was up to that didn’t involve music, fans began to wonder if Van Etten had decided she’d said what she needed to say and was moving on with her life, having shared more than enough.
So if the first great surprise Van Etten gave us was that she decided she still had more to say, the second was in how she said it. Van Etten got her start with the barebones folk of 2009’s Because I Was in Love, but first captured widespread attention with 2012’s Tramp, which was co-produced by Van Etten and The National’s Aaron Dessner, and featured the cinematic builds and anthemic weariness characteristic of The National Cinematic Extended Universe. It was the culmination of her previous work and one that fully marked Van Etten as a first-rate student of classic rock, someone who knows what works and what people want: plainspoken but incisive lyrics in the Petty/Springsteen mold, a bit of world-weary wisdom in the vein of her idol Leonard Cohen, some sturdy guitar hooks written in a harmonic language that seems to belong only to her, and a raspy voice that implies it’s seen it all but still wants to see a bit more.
The thing about classicists is that regardless of whatever is currently du jour, they always sound good and they’re always welcome, especially on road trips and last calls when you want to belt a chorus that will sound great even if you don’t sound great. The problem with classicists is that after a few albums, they are exceedingly easy to take for granted, even if the music remains first-rate. It’s very easy to imagine an alternative scenario for the past five years wherein Van Etten released two more albums in the soulful pop-folk vein of Are We There, and those albums received warm praise for her craftsmanship before slowly fading from the conversation. No one is saying this is fair.
But instead of settling into a comforting groove, Van Etten teamed with John Congleton, one of indie rock’s best producers, for a bold rewiring of her sound. What’s striking about her left turn on Remind Me Tomorrow is not just what’s there but what’s not. She packs on throbbing electronic drum programming, droning keyboards, and hissing noise throughout, but generally avoids the impulse to go for overkill. She leaves plenty of room for things to linger here: your feelings, her feelings, that extra syllable she slips into “driving” on “Malibu.” She leaves just enough negative space on slow-burners such as “Jupiter 4” and “Memorial Day” for the serrated keyboard plings and defeated sighs to float along unnervingly.
Van Etten has said in interviews that one of the guiding ethos for the album was to be less Leonard Cohen, more Suicide, referring to the confrontationally minimalistic New York post-punk duo. Suicide wanted to strip punk away to its barest components as a confrontational gesture, but Van Etten uses their sonic ideas to explore her own worried headspace. She has found domestic bliss, and that’s the problem, as there’s nothing more terrifying than realizing that suddenly you have everything to lose in a world that feels more unstable by the day.
The dominant pop trend of the past few years has come from artists such as Billie Eilish and SoundCloud rappers such as Lil Uzi Vert have made music that sounds almost intentionally drained of feeling. In response to a future that seems to be increasingly filled with climate-change driven disasters and raging social unrest, America’s musical youth have understandably responded with numb music that sounds prematurely hopeless, the sonic equivalent of giving up before life can disappoint you any further. In her own way, Van Etten has stumbled upon a more grown-up, thoughtful version of this anxious mood throughout Remind Me Tomorrow.
But instead of feeling nothing, she feels everything and it’s just too damn much, her worried mind spiraling out while contemplating the ultimate truth of all relationships on “Memorial Day,” that even if they don’t run away, everything ends eventually. Much like her younger comrades in dread, she never directly references current woes by name, but she doesn’t need to. (Though she says they were certainly on her mind.) Wide swaths of this album sound like being awake at 3 a.m., worrying about the latest polar icecap that collapsed and wondering how it can possibly all be okay at the end.
But while Van Etten shares the all-consuming fears of the younger generation (and pretty much anyone else who is paying attention), she knows that as a mother, it would be irresponsible to give in to despair. “Seventeen” is as much a love letter to her son as it is to herself, and like with the similarly explosive “Comeback Kid,” it’s a way to look back on all the mistakes and turns that led her to where she is now. It’s also a preemptive apology to all the new mistakes she knows she can’t avoid, while promising that it’s all going to be okay, somehow, because it has to be. This pair of songs flaunt the type of explosive choruses and guitar fireworks she largely eschews elsewhere, brief moments of release before the worry sets back in.
Remind Me Tomorrow was an album no one saw coming, but we were happy it got here. It earned some of the best reviews of Van Etten’s career, and this year has found her headlining her biggest tour yet. At this point, one wonders when she’s going to find the time to finish that degree.
Van Etten’s great subject matter is the immense struggle to heal. Her first few albums often found her contemplating an abusive relationship she struggled to leave, alternating between anger at her ex and anger at herself for staying. On “Leonard,” the most affecting song on Tramp (named after you know who), she sings of finally closing the door, forgiving herself and moving on. But you never stop moving on, and life never really settles down for long. On the closing lullaby “Stay,” she finds a way to turn the disquieting hiss of earlier tracks into a soothing quilt of harmonies as she pledges to do her best to keep it together for her child. She knows that future mistakes loom, and she hopes she’ll find a way to forgive herself for those as well. Maybe the big disaster won’t come, but every day brings small disasters that still need to be cleaned up.