Sharon Van Etten - (it was) because I was in love

by Jon Burke Rating:8 Release Date:2017-11-17
Sharon Van Etten – (it was) because I was in love
Sharon Van Etten – (it was) because I was in love

In early 2013 I made the long drive to Chicago for a Nick Cave show. I’d seen Cave live a couple times before but his opening act, Sharon Van Etten, was new to me in every way but name. Throughout 2012, Van Etten’s Tramp had raised a bit of a ruckus on blogs and made a lot of best-of lists and thus my ignorance was inexcusable, especially in light of the performance that followed.

The stage lights were dimmed for Van Etten’s set. The musician, backed only by a drummer with a minimal kit, began to quietly play. Her pristine voice and light strumming initially struck me as inappropriate when balanced against Cave’s raucous performance style and lecherous stage antics. Then, out of nowhere, Van Etten played “Give Out” and, line-by-line, turned me into a true believer:

“There was your breath on the back of my neck/ The only one holding/ The only one I had felt in years/ It's not because I always hold on/ It might be I always hold out…”

And then:

“I am biting my lip/ As confidence is speaking to me/ I loosen my grip from my palm/ Put it on your knee/ In my way/ I say/ You're the reason why I'll move to the city or/ Why I'll need to leave” 

In much the same way critics have mislabeled her contemporary, Angel Olsen, as “fragile,” Sharon Van Etten bears the undue burden of criticism mistaking her self-professed shyness for weakness. Though Van Etten has stated she uses music as a way to cope with social anxiety, her lyrical gift seems to stem directly from her hyper social-awareness. It’s as if every awkward moment, every weighted exchange, every perceived sleight is magnified a thousand times in Van Etten’s mind which then processes those tensions into poetic fuel for her song craft.

The re-release of Van Etten’s, largely ignored, first album, (it was) because I was in love, beautifully demonstrates the power of her eye for detail, the challenge in baring it all on record and as a bellwether of songs to come. Though many of the songs on because I was in love are minimal when compared to latter-day Sharon Van Etten, their concision is brutally efficient in chronicling the end of an abusive relationship. On "Consolation Prize", in just a few words, the controlling abuse becomes almost surgical:

“I saw you there/ Your friends aware/ Without a care/ The moral of the story/ Is don't lie to me again/ To find a better conversation/ So I can be your consolation prize”

Even though because I was in love was originally released in 2008, the album still sounds fresh and vital and not just because this version has been remixed and remastered. No, what makes this rerelease seem so incredibly prescient is its topicality. Given the rampant abuse and sexual misconduct revelations, in nearly every social arena and which seem to be increasing in frequency with each passing day, songs like “Keep” come across as a survivor’s manual, and healing sonic salve, all at once.

“Keep still so I can find you at your whim/ Breathe slowly so I can breathe with you/ Leave me alone/ We all want to feel at home/ Find me sleeping/ My inner dialogue's a drone/ Keep.../ Don't cry for me/ I can't either/ I can't weep/ Remember these moments/ They're all we have/ And all I can keep/ Caught in a lie I want/ You to keep me to yourself”

Sharon Van Etten no longer sounds like the woman she sang about on (it was) because I was in love. That version of her, anxious, paranoid and wounded, has healed and matured into the powerful frontwoman of a band whose sound consists of much more than subtle, plucked acoustic guitar underpinning layered vocal harmonies. The singer-songwriter’s transition is Dylan-esque in its completeness.

What (it was) because I was in love offers is a chance to look back at how one woman was able to cope with the chaos of physical and psychological abuse, sift through the detritus of a breakup and then come out the other side alive and ready for something better. What (it was) because I was in love offers is hope that we all can do better, can be better and can hopefully learn from the example of our lesser past selves about how to make our present existences into something greater than what came before.

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