Sharon van Etten and her band performs at the 9:30 Club. (Photo by Matt Ruppert)
Anticipation hovered in the thick, rain-refracted light over 9:30 Club as the early crowd nestled close to the brick, waiting. Darkness and light bouncing back and forth, the air felt thick with hope, with expectation, as Sharon van Etten would take the stage at the club recently for the first time to play the songs off her new album Remind Me Tomorrow.
Remind Me Tomorrow, her fifth record, represented a departure from Sharon’s previous albums — records laden with confession, intimacy, connection, and what happens when and after a heart breaks. She maintained that intimacy and connection throughout Remind Me Tomorrow — but an element of reclamation, of recovery, pervades these love songs. It was not exactly a rebirth, and she doesn’t offer redemption, but the subtle infusion of moving forward guides the album, even down to its sly title.
And this made sense, given how much Sharon has done in the intervening years between Are We There (2014) and Remind Me Tomorrow. She fell in love and had a child with her drummer, Zeke Hutchins (who is now her manager), enrolled in school to study psychology (if all goes to plan, she’ll become a therapist by 50 or so), appeared on television (David Lynch’s reboot of Twin Peaks and a riveting, appropriately emotional role on The OA), and scored a film (Katherine Dieckmann’s Strange Weather).
This skein of responsibilities could lead to confusion, an amphetamine crash of busyness, but through it all, when something else gets added, “Remind me tomorrow.” Sure, that darkness and heaviness weighs over the songs, over the music, even into the lyrics, but there’s an undeniable self-agency here, self-reliance, a sense that she has all of the control she requires.
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Throughout all of this, she wrote an album (and dozens more songs), recording it with the help of John Congleton and a mighty cast of players. Much of the early writing happened in her apartment, in the slowness of a life lived at home. Mostly on the piano — including “Comeback Kid” — before becoming something else on the synth and then something altogether different again in the studio, and as we learned at the 9:30, something unique yet again. Maybe that’s the most apt metaphor for this album: transformation.
The room filled quickly, maybe more than I’ve ever seen before, nearly at capacity by the time Nilüfer Yanya took to the stage (–every note and rhythm so carefully considered; please check out her songs, too). When the stage finally darkened and Sharon’s host of collaborators tramped on stage in red lights, opening the night to the heady rhythms and drones of “Jupiter 4.”
Sharon walked to her mic last, hands free, spotlights brightening her in the shadows. The first moment of drama in a night that delivered such moments again and again, she sang a true love song that made hearts skip beats while feet stomped dances. Pulsing forward, she rode the rhythm into lead single, “Comeback Kid,” its anthemic call “Don’t look back” an assertion to move on from the past, to chug along.
Then, the sublime discordance of “No One’s Easy to Love,” a more experimental kind of song that immediately evoked the band Suicide, Sharon’s voice an elastic thing rifling through the edges of reality. At the edge of the stage and around the venue, it felt like an exorcism, demons being lifted by the fog machine and shouted away by the woman onstage.
The set deviated briefly from the new record to deliver a kind of new-look version of the almost-painful “Tarifa” (she has a unique gift for empathy and conjuring that response in listeners) from Are We There and “One Day” from Serpents before returning to Remind Me Tomorrow. Road trip song “Malibu” acted as a brief moment of peace, evoking everything about trips and vacations and the importance of home with the person you love. If there is any song she played that so clearly reflects good love, this is the one, and she followed it by “Hands,” with its lyrics of honest love and giving oneself to one’s lover with no intent to harm.
She sent away the band to play the keys and sing a Sinéad O’Connor song, “Black Boys on Mopeds,” a kind of genuine homage reflective of her influences, her sound. She brought the band back out and introduced everyone before they galloped into “Seventeen,” a song well-destined for fame in 2019, from coffeehouses to cars to parties to making breakfast. Like “Comeback Kid,” it felt almost as if she’s skipping through time to talk to herself, both now and in the past.
At moments, as I watched her tear down the stage with the band around her, she invoked a Springsteenian bravado and the contradiction of gentle presence and harsh reality only Sharon van Etten could deliver. She sang,
“Down beneath the ashes and the stone Sure of what I've lived and have known I see you so uncomfortably alone I wish I could show you how much you've grown,”
and it could be felt by anyone who had ever gone through a significant change. There was life and living in these songs, and “Seventeen” represented it well.
I must stress how much the crowd engaged with these songs. Every set of eyes strived to see the stage, every set of feet moved, every hip swayed, and every lip moved as if joining in the song could and would set them free. People stood on the stairs and in the hallways, craning their necks, popping up onto the tips of their toes.
The set ended with “Every Time the Sun Comes Up,” off Are We There, and at least a few faces near me had tears trickling down their cheeks, glinting. The band came back out for, “I Told You Everything,” a song that could either be for a lover or for the audience; it felt like both.
Sharon repeatedly thanked the audience throughout the night, smiled at her bandmates between songs. I assumed she knew, by the end of the show, the massiveness of these songs, words. The encore ended with two more songs, “Serpents” from Tramp (her biggest hit) and “Love More” from Epic, with those final lines,
“She made me love, she made me love, she made me love more”
If you can, go see her. She’s on tour for “the next nine months or so.”
Here are some photos of Sharon van Etten at the 9:30 Club on Feb. 6, 2019. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Matt Ruppert.