Album Review: Sharon Van Etten // epic Ten

Sharon Van Etten celebrates the tenth anniversary of her lauded Epic with a collection of covers that underscore the nuances of the original material

2010’s Epic marked a turning point for Sharon Van Etten, as she moved from her sparsely orchestrated first full-length release into the limelight of the indie circuit. It was then that the folk singer played with a band for the first time and subsequently kicked her career into high gear with an opening slot for The National on tour after signing to Jagjaguwar. Since then, Van Etten has established herself as one of the most confident voices in indie rock and folk both at home and abroad, most notably perhaps with 2019’s soaring Remind Me Tomorrow.

In order to celebrate the pivotal project, Van Etten reached out to her contemporaries to breathe new life into Epic’s tracklist. Aaron Dessner, Justin Vernon, IDLES, Shamir and Fiona Apple were amongst those that answered the call: the resulting collaboration is an eclectic collection of songs that highlights the best of Van Etten’s songwriting.

Epic was written in the aftermath of a dysfunctional relationship and the experience informed the writing. In order to process all of it, Van Etten admitted still being under her former partner’s spell in ‘A Crime’, framed her codependence in broader terms to absolve herself of self-inflicted, undeserved, blame in the intimate ‘Save Yourself’ and took back control in the slow burn of ‘Don’t Do It’.

It’s no surprise such a personal album would lose some of its identity and emotional poignancy when performed by anyone other than Van Etten. Arguably inevitable even. While the covers taken as a cohesive lot do chip away at the intensity of the original work, they individually shine as the artists reinterpret the music through their own prisms.

Fiona Apple bellows “chained to the wall of our room” at ‘Love More’’s onset, drawing out every vowel to bury a painful experience under the hard-won confidence of a survivor. There is no question she means every word as she sings them, spotlighting Van Etten’s ability to sublimate festering personal wounds into relatable experiences. And it’s precisely because Apple exudes the authority with which one can look back at early experiences and empathize with how they were handled that we believe her.

Most of what is lost in translation in Big Red Machine (Aaron Dessner, Justin Vernon)’s version of ‘A Crime’ is recovered through its crashing waves of cymbals and thunderous guitar strums. Vernon’s croon surfs above the turbulence, sailing through crests and troughs, ultimately disappearing in a transformative howl.

Whereas Van Etten radiated a simmering resolve in ‘Peace Signs’, IDLES take the mantra and turn it into a call to arms: drums plow through the scene of the crime in Tennessee, galloping across plains to Van Etten’s Brooklyn home base by way of the New Jersey basement where much of the album was written.

On the other end of the spectrum, St. Panther’s Spotify-fluent bedroom pop stalls ‘One Day’, muting the insistence of the grueling “you don’t leave me now, do you love me back?” with a blanket of ambient and soft contemporary R&B undertones. The original’s angst is slightly undermined by the nonchalance of a playlist-ready sound that, while agreeable, doesn’t tug at heartstrings as much.

The eclecticism and rich tapestry of Epic Ten’s covers effectively demonstrate Van Etten’s songwriting prowess. Competent artists choosing to put their talent at her service is as much a show of camaraderie as it is one of respect and admiration. From where we’re standing, she deserves all of it.

Rating

Sharon Van Etten’s epic Ten is released on April 16th and is available to pre-order and pre-save now. Sharon Van Etten will also be performing a special celebration live stream on the 16th, more details and tickets here

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Red Dziri

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