If you ever want to freak yourself all the way out, try driving a newborn baby — your newborn baby — home from the hospital. All of a sudden, everything is new. There is a car seat installed in your car, and there is a tiny and fragile human, a human whose health and wellbeing are your responsibility, trussed up in it. All of a sudden, it feels like every other car on the road is out to get you. They’re aimed at you, and they’re trying to kill your kid with every too-fast left turn, every lane change. You feel all sorts of feelings when you become a parent. You feel joy and pride and tenderness. You feel nostalgia, a certain ache for the younger version of yourself that you know is now gone forever. And you feel an overwhelming anxiety, one that borders on terror. (Or at least I did.) People don’t really talk about that anxiety, but it’s there. It’s part of the package. All of it, together, is overwhelming.
All those overwhelming, overwhelmed feelings — anxiety very much included — are all over Remind Me Tomorrow, Sharon Van Etten’s new album. Remind Me Tomorrow is Van Etten’s first in five years, but she’s done plenty since 2014’s Are We There. She’s sung on other people’s records and shown up at other people’s live shows. She’s recorded songs for movies and TV shows. She’s recorded a whole score for a movie. She’s acted, appearing in The OA and Twin Peaks: The Return, two of the weirdest TV shows to pop up on our streaming services in recent years. (She just played herself in Twin Peaks, in one of those roadhouse scenes. But she was still in it, and you still weren’t.) She’s gone back to college, studying to become a mental health counselor after realizing how much she got from emotional conversations with fans after shows. And, most crucially, she’s become a mother.
Remind Me Tomorrow isn’t about motherhood, and it isn’t about finding yourself in a happy relationship after years of hopeless ones, either. Both of those life circumstances animate the album, but it’s not a concept record. Instead, Remind Me Tomorrow is about finding new ways to process new emotions, about dealing with a reality where you’re happy but you’re also too busy and too overwhelmed to properly enjoy that happiness. And in recording these songs, Van Etten has made a tremendous leap forward. Van Etten’s old records featured the sort of music I could appreciate without fully loving it. She was a great singer and an evocative songwriter, and yet the music, for me, blurred in with a whole generation of folksy, respectable Brooklyn NPR-indie. It sounded nice, but it never jumped out. Remind Me Tomorrow jumps all the way out.
It jumps out right from its first moments. “I Told You Everything,” the album’s first song, opens with empty space and shivery, echoing piano notes. Van Etten’s voice comes in strong and clear: “Sitting at the bar, I told you everything / You said, ‘Holy shit, you almost died.’” We don’t get to hear the story that she’s telling the “you” of the song. She keeps that between her and whoever she was talking to. But the song itself captures the feeling of being lost in conversation with someone else, of unburdening yourself and finding someone willing to really listen: “Sharing a shot, you held my hand / Knowing everything, knowing everything, we cried.”
The music is so spare that it’s almost eerie. On previous records, Van Etten has gone for organic warmth. We can still hear hints of that, but she’s filled the song, and the album, with different sounds. Van Etten has said that she wasn’t even planning to make a new album when she started writing the songs that became Remind Me Tomorrow. Instead, she was working on her film score and messing around in a practice space that she shared with the actor Michael Cera. (The idea that fucking Scott Pilgrim might’ve accidentally played a role in this album’s creation is one of the more fun things about it.) She started playing around with Cera’s Jupiter 4, an analog synth that Roland made for a few years, starting in 1978. It’s an instrument capable of conjuring cold, atmospheric tones, and those tones inspired her to the point where she named one of the album’s singles after the instrument.
In talking about the album, Van Etten has been bringing up a whole new core of influences: Nick Cave, Suicide, Portishead, Pat Benatar, Joan Jett, Bruce Springsteen. Often, when artists talk of far-afield inspirations, it smells like bullshit. Not here. Remind Me Tomorrow is not a polite indie rock album. It throbs and hisses and seethes. It is night music, music for driving empty city streets after all the bars have closed. Throughout, synths strobe and buzz and hum and echo, creating a cold and merciless tone. And the hooks, when they arrive, can be big and mean and demanding. But the influences aren’t just sonic. All the artists Van Etten has mentioned have found ways to combine toughness and vulnerability. And now, so has she.
For Van Etten, the juice is in the contrast between the lyrics and the music. If you read those lyrics on paper, Remind Me Tomorrow looks like a happy album. There are lines on there about how even the boring, domestic moments of being in love can feel like revelations: “I walked in the door / The Black Crowes playing as he cleaned the floor / I thought I couldn’t love him any more.” There are lines about the disbelief that comes with matching up with someone in ways you never thought possible. And while Van Etten doesn’t sing a ton about motherhood, that’s in there, too, especially on closing track: “Want your whole star to shine on in / One star, one light / The meaning of life.”
But the music tells a different story. It’s dark and heavy and synthetic, more Depeche Mode than the National. Even when Van Etten is singing about new life milestones, about transformations, the instruments behind her are evoking the stress and uncertainty that can come with these new changes. On “Jupiter 4,” Van Etten sings, “I’ve been waiting waiting waiting my whole life for someone like you.” But she sings it like an incantation as the track itself purrs ominously, as keyboards howl like wind. It implies something that isn’t quite written into the lyrics. Van Etten isn’t giving herself a romantic ending. Instead, she’s opening herself up to something more nerve-wracking: Once you find the thing that you’ve always wanted, then what? On “Stay,” the song about motherhood, she admits that she has no idea: “I don’t know how it ends.”
It all comes to a head on “Seventeen,” the album’s centerpiece and, from where I’m sitting, its best song. “Seventeen” is where the Springsteen influence makes itself most obvious. Van Etten sings about that time of discovery and uncertainty, and she directs the song to her younger self, trying to give her some idea of what’s in store. That question of the younger self is an old one, one that’s important for a lot of us. (I know I’m always trying to make my 15-year-old self proud.) But Van Etten almost seems to be arguing with her past self, struggling against the derision that she seems to imagine that younger self feeling.
There’s reassurance in the song, but there’s defiance, too. The song builds with a squirmy confidence, all leading to the climactic moment where Van Etten howls, “I know what you’re gonna be / I know that you’re gonna be.” As in: You’re going to make it. It’s going to be OK. But in the very next line, she might be admonishing this previous self: “You’ll crumble it up just to see / Afraid that you’ll be just like me.” If I’m reading this right, she’s not sure that this 17-year-old Sharon Van Etten would think that she’s cool, and that pisses her off. She’s a widely beloved career musician, and yet she’s still stressing that shit. That’s one level of anxiety. Another level: Before too long, Van Etten will have an actual 17-year-old in her life, and maybe that one won’t think she’s cool, either. And thinking about that is just one more way to freak yourself out.
Other albums of note out this week:
• James Blake’s as-yet-unheard Assume Form.
• Future’s as-yet-unheard The WIZRD.
• Steve Gunn’s meditative-but-hooky zone-out The Unseen In Between.
• Maggie Rogers’ sparkling debut Heard It In A Past Life.
• Aesop Rock and Tobacco’s hallucinatory collaboration Malibu Ken.
• Toro Y Moi’s glimmering, pop-influenced Outer Peace.
• Deerhunter’s queasily thoughtful Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?
• Pedro The Lion’s grizzled, emotive return Phoenix.
• Juliana Hatfield’s tuneful throwback Weird.
• Lost Under Heaven’s churning, soaring Love Hates What You Become.
• Julian Lynch’s woozy, atmospheric Rat’s Spit.
• Buke & Gase’s experimental pop skronker Scholars.
• Steve Mason’s ruminative About The Light.
• The Twilight Sad’s reliably gloomy It Won’t Be Like This All the Time.