In the fall of 2010, Sharon Van Etten released her sophomore album, the slyly titled Epic. A brief but resounding collection of songs, it ended up being a transitional era for her — moving away from the depictions of an abusive relationship in her earliest work, towards everything that came next. If people came across the album, it left its mark on them. One of those people was Justin Vernon, who ended up covering its closing track “Love More” with Aaron and Bryce Dessner. Somewhere in all of that, Van Etten and Aaron began talking about working together. Out of Epic, the groundwork was laid for what would become Van Etten’s proper breakthrough. That album, Tramp, arrived 10 years ago today.
This was a hectic era for both Van Etten and Dessner. Van Etten toured extensively behind Epic, and Dessner was busy with a post-High Violet the National, the band continuing their steady ascent to the top of the indie world. In between their respective stints on the road, the two got together at Dessner’s backyard studio in Ditmas Park. On and off for over a year, they tweaked and fleshed out the songs that would become Tramp.
It’s sort of bizarre to think of the circumstances of Tramp now, 10 years later. Dessner, now actually mainstream-famous after producing multiple Taylor Swift albums, was just starting to really try his hand as a producer. Like many of his earlier forays outside the National, there was a different dynamic at play — a musician who was slightly more established trying to shine a light on songwriters he believed in. Van Etten, of course, soon became one of her generation’s indie luminaries as well, but was still a lesser-known artist going into the album. When you know what each has done since, there’s almost a scrappy quality to Tramp, two musicians figuring out new approaches out side-by-side.
In the arc of Van Etten’s career, though, that’s not how Tramp functioned. The album was fuller, bigger, bolder, more intricate than anything she had done before. There were proper rock songs, from ragged opener “Warsaw” to the fervent churn of “Serpents” almost picking up where Epic’s “Peace Signs” left off. There were also many songs that perfected the folk-tinged indie of Van Etten’s earlier albums, showcasing her melodic sensibility better than ever before. “Give Out” and “We Are Fine” both pull off a sort of magic trick, the way Van Etten’s vocal cadences tend to be long and winding — like you can hear her reaching deep down to pull this out — and then resolving in melodies that will just wreck you. Van Etten had written catchy songs before; Epic, at least, still boasts some of her classics. But at every turn, Tramp found her elevating her craft, whether in the lilting prettiness of “Leonard” or the twinkling outro of “I’m Wrong.”
This sound was famously built up by a host of visiting pals from around the indie sphere. Julianna Barwick sings on two tracks, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner appears on “Serpents,” and “We Are Fine” is a duet with Beirut’s Zach Condon (who also provides backups on “Magic Chords”). “We Are Fine” in particular was inextricable from its collaboration, given Van Etten wrote the song about calming a friend through a panic attack with Condon in mind. Otherwise, several National members or associates appeared: Doveman, trombonist Benjamin Lanz, Bryce Dessner with guitar and orchestration, the Walkmen’s Matt Barrick on drums for most of the album, Bryan Devendorf providing the same on several of the other tracks. Aaron Dessner, as became common with his production style, plays all over the album.
In the context of indie in 2012, this gave Van Etten a sort of proper boost and introduction: After the increasing buzz from Epic, Tramp was the exact kind of fully realized, ambitious successor that delivered the level-up we’d all been waiting for. Unfortunately, it was also dogged by some of the less flattering old-time singer-songwriter tropes, the framing that Van Etten was a confessional female songwriter and a bunch of indie dudes came around to help flesh out her sound. The National co-sign was certainly signifiant — the band was right in the pocket of critical adulation where they could do no wrong and most anything they touched was given close attention. But depending on who was talking about Tramp, the collaborative nature of it all could slide from being rightfully celebrated to getting dangerously close to narratively overshadowing what Tramp really did: bring a gifted songwriter’s empathetic work to more listeners than ever before.
Like the transition from Because I Was In Love to Epic, Tramp once more found Van Etten in a very different place in life. With all the touring for Epic, she hadn’t lived anywhere of her own for over a year. She had traveled constantly, crashed with friends, written songs in disparate locations and disparate moods. At their bare bones, Tramp’s songs still portrayed the widest spectrum of Van Etten’s songwriting yet. “Serpents” is one more scathing rejoinder to an abusive lover, while other songs trace more existential romantic turmoil; one of the album’s most evocative choruses arrives in “Give Out,” when Van Etten sings, “You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city/ Or why I’ll need to leave.”
There’s Van Etten working her way up to the realization “I’m bad at loving you” over the course of “Leonard,” or the yearning and search for reassurance in “I’m Wrong” — the song’s starry outro functioning like it’s depicting the song’s attempts at quotidian domestic bliss are either romantic myth or transcendence. When you combine these with something like “We Are Fine” and its social anxiety, Tramp gives you a portrait of a person in transit and in movement over a stretch of time, the snapshots and people and fragments collected on the way.
If Epic found Van Etten staking ground in a new chapter of her life after trying to process early adulthood traumas on Because I Was In Love, Tramp was the beginning of her truly coming into her own. After being her embraced by her peers and welcomed to the club, so to speak, but not always getting credit for her own work, Van Etten helmed 2014’s Are We There herself. That album, in turn, ended up being the end of an arc, the end destination of her first run of albums, both in terms of personal life reckonings and aesthetic evolution. She once more toured incessantly, and then she went almost five years without releasing another LP.
The elapsed time would’ve positioned Remind Me Tomorrow as a whole new era anyway, but now Van Etten’s life and art were radically different. She had settled down with a partner, had a child. She made an album drenched in synths. There were still songs that traversed complex emotional terrain, as there likely always will be; Van Etten’s always been open about the therapeutic function of songwriting for her. But when you know what she achieved with Are We There and where her life went from there, it also recontextualizes how you hear Tramp.
“I was just a child then,” she sings on “In Line.” If Tramp arrived at a time when you, too, were perhaps a twenty-something listlessly navigating social and romantic travails in a new city, it was a heavy listen — it still can be. Like all of Van Etten’s best work, its raw emotions made it feel like confiding in a friend. Now, with 10 years on and a lot more life behind all of us, you can look back and see what was in process, know that some conclusions would finally be reached. Now Tramp sits in the middle of the story, a person getting just a little bit closer to who they were always supposed to be.