- by Mark Moody Rating:8 Release Date:2019-01-18 Label: Jagjaguwar
As the saying goes, if you want something done ask someone who is busy. Sharon Van Etten has not been letting the grass grow under her feet since 2014’s Are We There. Not hardly. She’s scored soundtracks, collaborated with other musicians, gotten some screen time, and enrolled in college. Not to mention falling in love at least twice - once with her partner and then, as we are all susceptible to, her first child who’s pushing two at this point. Fortunately for us music-loving types, Van Etten has not abandoned what we all came to know her for. She’s returned with her most cohesive and consistent release to date in Remind Me Tomorrow. The title is taken from the computer screen pop up that begs you to update your software. Not surprisingly, Van Etten always takes the busy person’s choice.
Teaming up with producer John Congleton (who produced last year’s excellent Mothers album), he and Van Etten clearly got the maximalist, post-industrial memo that’s been going around. The songs here range from atmospheric sketches, spare ballads, to fiery rockers, but all are covered with synth drones and washes fitting the sound of the times. The songs also all have an anthemic build to them that is hard to resist. About any track on here would be XM radio worthy, including the crackling ‘Comeback Kid’ that ended up on plenty of 2018 best of singles lists and crossed into the new year on deservedly heavy rotation.
The album starts with one of its sparest, but also most powerful songs in ‘I Told You Everything’. The song recounts a barstool confessional conversation over a simple piano chord with drums kicking in halfway through. When you spill your guts and the listener takes a step forward vs recoiling, it’s worth memorializing. The song is one of the most emotionally laid bare tracks on the album and a fitting kick-off. Romance is also tackled on ‘Jupiter 4’ with its spaced out flabby synth lines. The title and vibe make you think of an otherworldly encounter “trying to relate in my state” until you find out it’s named for the synth it was created on.
You can get a sense on ‘Jupiter 4’ as well as several other songs of Van Etten’s time soundtracking. Both ‘Memorial Day’ and the later ‘Malibu’ are tone poems with a little more heft. Vaguer lyrics that are also repressed under a hazy drone add to create more of a mood than a memory.
Of course a look at Remind Me Tomorrow would not be complete without addressing the songs about “her shadow”, which seems to be the reference point to her son. There’s an element of Van Etten looking back, while also imagining her child grown up. Since the album ticks off a few topics, it’s not quite the parental opus of Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, but starting in reverse order the album closing ‘Stay’ recounts her experience in her child’s earliest days. From “kicks at night” to motherly advice of knowing “time to stand, time to walk away” it is all heart. But she addresses things most plainly on ‘You Shadow’, imparting the simplest of advice surrounded by bleating synths.
Unless you have been living under a rock, it has been hard to avoid the bristling ‘Comeback Kid’ that evokes a reflection on Van Etten’s own success but is obtuse enough lyrically to make it hard to pin down. But the just as strident ‘Seventeen’ is more open in its look not just back on Van Etten’s earlier self, but also a look ahead to her “shadow’s” future. Her admonishment of “afraid you’ll be just like me” as synth knobs are twisted to full corrosiveness towards the song’s end comes as a siren in the night. You sure could do far worse than end up in Van Etten’s shoes, but if the fear of that is what spurs Van Etten’s most urgent moments on Remind Me Tomorrow we all get to benefit from it.
It's taken me a couple of weeks to wrap my head around this one, but man, oh man does this album rule! A pleasant surprise in so many ways.
Great work as always Mark.