Sharon Van Etten always had a way of drawing you in. She is a naturally gifted singer, with an endlessly expressive voice that stops you dead in your tracks before you even get to the raw emotional territory she’s willing to explore in her songs; she’s one of those musicians where you imagine they had to become who they are, because what else were they put here to do. But Sharon Van Etten did not arrive fully-formed, at least not in terms of who we came to know her as.
Her official debut, the spare 2009 collection Because I Was In Love, was a quiet and brutally honest introduction, but it also only hinted at the artist she’d grow into. A little over a decade later, you can almost look at Van Etten’s career as having a prologue section, a rough sketch at the outset that purged the fraught personal history that birthed those early songs. And then when its successor appeared the next year, Sharon Van Etten began to come into focus.
That album, Van Etten’s sophomore effort Epic, arrived 10 years ago today. Stylized with a small “e,” Epic was a partially tongue-in-cheek title. It found Van Etten broadening her songwriting palette to include winsome country-tinged ambles, seething rockers, and meditations that sat in a cloud of harmonium. Epic could be a heavy listen, but it was also economical. At seven songs, it clocks in just over 30 minutes total — hardly the kind of sprawl one might expect from the word “epic,” yet it covers a wide swath of inner turmoil and reckoning in that space. The album was a small and giant step at once, Van Etten beginning to move beyond the subject of past trauma while wrangling the musical vision that would soon make her one of the biggest new names in the indie sphere.
While Because I Was In Love emerged more directly from the years Van Etten spent in an abusive relationship while living in Tennessee, Epic was more about the start of everything that came next. She was living in New York, pursuing music and discovering a new life. Epic still has a lot of darkness to process; Van Etten’s music has always been particularly well-calibrated for that. But rather than catalog gaping wounds, the album’s newfound sonic variety allowed Van Etten to alternately burn old pain away and sigh her way towards little salves.
The album opened with “A Crime,” a sort of final note from Van Etten’s origins in that it maintained her debut’s sparse voice-and-guitar approach. But from there Epic immediately set out to establish different stakes, with the roiling “Peace Signs” charging right out the gate. “Save Yourself” allowed Van Etten’s voice to dance with crying pedal steel embellishments, while “Dsharpg” became an aching core in the middle of the album. It’s the first of Epic’s ghostly, spacious songs, with Van Etten searching over hazy harmonium atmospherics and carefully deployed, thudding percussion.
Van Etten’s best songs are more or less equally dispersed across her career, but the backstretch of Epic stacks up several of her finest all in a row. “Dsharpg” works as this swirl in the middle of the album, a big open space that could be overwhelming or comforting and from which all the other songs spin out. From there, she goes into “Don’t Do It,” a song that alludes to suicide, addiction, and toxic relationships all at once in an arrangement that feels as if it keeps getting bigger and bigger until it’s almost too much to take. It remained a live staple in subsequent years, becoming one of the only full-throated rock songs in Van Etten’s catalog for some time. Similarly, “One Day” became one of her standards thanks to its gentle propulsion and one of the easiest earworm melodies Van Etten’s ever written. It was an early moment of Van Etten grazing up against a poppier strain of singer-songwriter folk-rock, and all these years later it retains a poignant ability to equally suggest the sun setting on one era of a person’s life or rising on another.
Then there’s the album’s closer, “Love More.” The other instance of Van Etten’s experiments with droning harmonium compositions, “Love More” was the song that ended Epic with some form of resolve. But at the same time, Van Etten sang of being chained to home like a dog, one of the more harrowing references to the relationship she had still only recently escaped. Often deemed an ambiguous conclusion, it seems to modulate, the weathered mantra of its central lyric and the slow bloom (or drift) of its arrangement suggesting lingering scars as much as nascent healing.
In terms of Van Etten’s career, “Love More” was far more definitive: This was the ellipsis that lead to her story taking off. The song had already been around as a single, which in that sense made it the transition towards the album. But “Love More” has always loomed large over Epic, thanks to what it yielded afterwards. Somewhere along the line, the song found its way to Justin Vernon; he wound up covering it with Aaron and Bryce Dessner. Out of all this, Van Etten made it onto the National’s radar, and she wound up collaborating with Aaron — in what would be one of his earlier forays into production work — on her third album, 2012’s Tramp. She was invited into the core of what was going on in the indie world then, the circle of its most respected and beloved songwriters, and she emerged with an album that served as a wider breakthrough. Tramp’s success in turn let her work towards 2014’s Are We There, the album that offered the fullest realization of Van Etten’s early work and, just maybe, a final sense of conclusion and rebirth after years of writing through tumultuous times.
Taken as a whole, there’s a pretty distinct arc to all of Van Etten’s work thus far. After releasing her first four albums in the span of five years, she took another five off, then returned with last year’s Remind Me Tomorrow. There were still big ideas and struggles to contend with there, new territory like holding on to domestic bliss and parsing motherhood during one of our country’s most precarious passages in recent memory. But it was also, when looking back at how Van Etten’s career began, something of a happy ending — not, hopefully, to her years of releasing music, but for the memories and hurt that had to be navigated on these earlier albums.
You don’t get there without Epic, a transition moment for Van Etten as a writer and as a soon-to-be luminary within ’10s indie rock. Here, she was younger, still making sense of it all. But there was always something deep inside her, something that was going to become these songs. She’s given us a lot through that music over the years; she’s given so much of herself and, as a result, provided a whole lot of solace for those who had similar traumas or even just more run-of-the-mill existential pangs. This album is where she began to figure all that out — and ever since, she’s been helping people figure it out alongside her.