Before this album, it’s been close to five years since Sharon Van Etten put out Are We There which I reviewed way back in 2014, a really damn good album that I didn’t quite love as much as I wanted despite some sterling cuts – maybe it’s just me, but I thought epic was just a shade stronger and more consistent. And I’ll admit that for as much as I liked those songs, I’ve only gone back to Sharon Van Etten sporadically – which is more than ‘not at all’, but for as powerful of a singer as she is, I’ve still been waiting for her potential to coalesce and for her to really drive it out of the park, at least for me, and it’s not like she’s short of more prolific competition either.
Granted, it’s not like she hasn’t been busy – she got married, she had a kid, she did some acting work, she went back to school, that’s a lot to cram into five years as well as record what many have described as her most lush and expansive project to date. And while I wouldn’t say I was incredibly excited to cover this – the hype has been a long, slow boil – I wasn’t about to let it slip past me, so what did we get from Remind Me Tomorrow?
You know, I’ll be very straight with you all – I’ve struggled with this album. Not that it’s bad – it’s absolutely not, in fact I’d argue it’s really quite good – but in finding the moments that resonate as powerfully as cuts like ‘Your Love Is Killing Me’ and ‘You Know Me Well’, Remind Me Tomorrow takes a very different tact and tone that I did come to appreciate, even if I’d argue it doesn’t quite hit the same highlights as powerfully. And as such, I’m a little more lukewarm on this album that outright loving it – which yes, was also the case for me with Are We There, but for very different reasons this time around, although the roots of niggling problems I had with that project seem to have grown deeper.
But before we get into those specifically, I want to start with what I’ve always liked about Sharon Van Etten: her vocal presence and timbre. She’s always had the presence, maturity, and uncanny ability to convey real emotional complexity with few words that has sparked comparisons to artists like Joni Mitchell, but in comparison with an act like, say, Courtney Marie Andrews who has embraced more of the pastoral warmth and folk yearning with similar comparisons, on this album both through her vocal timbre and choice of rougher but more intimate language there’s a sense of greater stakes and tension that courses through the songs. More than ever you get the impression that she’s emerged from the other side of the brink that characterized earlier releases and there’s a shaken, but resolute exhalation in finding something new on the other side. And while those ghosts linger and have left their scars, and there’s no guarantee of what might come next, her core has persisted.
But what surrounds that core has absolutely changed, so let’s get to that right now: in comparison to the sweeping, hollowed, reverb-soaked sound of Are We There, the biggest shift for Remind Me Tomorrow is the production courtesy of John Congleton. The most stark comparison point are similar jagged, blocky tones that characterized albums like St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy and her self-titled release, and in more ways than one. Both artists have depths of soul and winsome poise that strike against the more angular, alien production in strange but visceral ways, but where St. Vincent seems more willing to slip into pop artificiality and bring to bear her own dramatic contrast, for Van Etten there’s still a loose, more free-flowing ethereal tone that fills the spaces, a fusion of tone rather than slotting neatly into place. And while the percussion can feel more programmed than ever, instead of the contorted static blocks of guitar and synth St. Vincent used we get blurry cascades of wiry synth, torrents of jagged distortion, and while the mix can still feel frigid on tone alone, it’s a damp misty chill that can really sink into you. And I’ll admit if there was an area where I struggled to really love this album as much as I wanted, it was this change in sound – and I see the irony, because when Sharon Van Etten said she was at least partially inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s more synth-inflected 80s period, I can totally see it in principle. But where Springsteen never really lost his swell as Americana embraced synthesizers, I can’t help but feel like songs such ‘No One’s Easy To Love’ with its blocky groove and dense percussion, or ‘Comeback Kid’ with its oscillating waves of wheedling tones and gated drums, or the lumpy bass distortion of ‘You Shadow’ or the shuddering warp of the guitars on ‘Hands’ are hemming in compositions that should burst with more presence, and I think a big part of this comes in foundation. Switch to songs like ‘Malibu’ or especially ‘Seventeen’ that at least maintain some organic foundation in the pianos and they just feel more naturalistic against Van Etten’s voice – and while I’m on that subject, I’m not sure why they thought it was a good idea to continuously tack on so many layers of blocky vocal mixing, but it absolutely got distracting and could actively detract from the voice that’s the biggest selling point behind this project!
And here’s my problem: going back to St. Vincent’s self-titled project for a moment, the reason why those blocky, alien tones worked so effectively in setting the mood was because the songwriting embraced that twisted alien edge or was at the very least aware of how it shaped and framed the songs: it’s why ‘BRING ME YOUR LOVES’ is one of her best ever songs and why ‘Severed Crossed Fingers’ worked the gory contrast so effectively. And yet while the tonal choices certainly can match the discomfort that Sharon Van Etten might feel in both reflection and an unsteady embrace of the future, it’s a less elegant fusion and one I’m not sure best flatters her writing and delivery. Which is a shame, because she still possesses the ability to convey a lot of subtext in these cuts through pretty straightforward, almost underwritten verses, from the aching give-and-take of wounded pride that dooms the relationship on ‘No One’s Easy To Love’ to the hesitant fear to be truly honest with a new love on ‘Hands’, where she was prepared to say what he wanted to hear but it’s a more revelatory experience when he was willing to hear it all. Then we have the songs that do feel more linked to complicated musings around the past, first with ‘Comeback Kid’ that slides around the tangle of emotions returning to a hometown that hasn’t changed while you have – very reminiscent of Natalie Hemby’s excellent ‘This Town Still Talks About You’ – and then with the love letter to old New York glory days on ‘Seventeen’, where she speaks to her past self fully aware of the pain that might come and get worse, but not really wanting to dampen that youthful exuberance. And if there is a deeper theme that seems to wrestle with the production, it’s letting the natural flow of human experience and connection go forth, not fall to overanalysis and too much thought. It’s why there’s such exasperation on ‘You Shadow’ for those who try too hard to be liked where they might even compromise their own identities, or conversely the surprise of an honest conversation about relationships past feels so organic on ‘I Told You Everything’, and even moreso on ‘Malibu’, where posturing romance only deepens when the frame tightens amidst normalcy – it’s a really sweet, understated moment I really did love.
And honestly, I really do wish I could love this album more – I certainly get why the critics have gone crazy over this one, as it’s a sonic pivot that makes sense on paper and if you can get behind the more synth-inflected tones will absolutely sound great. For me, though… I dunno, I find myself wishing there was a bit more organic foundation, swell, and groove to really anchor the writing. And outside of certain specific moments, I find this album a lot easier to respect and admire than outright love – which for me means I’m giving this a very strong 7/10 and absolutely a recommendation, especially if the synth foundation gets you onboard in a bigger way. Either way, this is the sort of artistic pivot I’m not surprised Sharon Van Etten made, and while I’m not certain I love all the results, she definitely stuck the landing, so check this out.