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Soundposts

A blog for Seattle music lovers of all stripes, from hip-hop and indie rock to jazz and world music.

July 3, 2014 at 3:45 PM

Sharon Van Etten’s expansive vocal talent sings from the darkness

Brooklyn-based, Jersey-bred singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten, who plays the Neptune Theatre on Saturday, is like a magic bean stalk: Every time you look at her, she’s a bit higher in the sky.

Following her extraordinary, if understated, career has been as rewarding as watching Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell coming up decades ago.

The Cohen comparison is not capricious. On her darkly interior new album, “Are We There?” Van Etten casually mixes the vocabulary of spiritual dread (“cross,” “sin,” “hell”) and the pain of carnal love (“all I ever wanted was you,” “your love is killing me”) in much the same way as the Montreal master.

The difference on this recording is that Van Etten now seems to have taken charge of the studio process as well as the lyrics and melodies. In interviews, she has reported that with some of the new songs, she heard the “sound” or the riffs first, then wrote the tunes.

Occasionally, the shifting stew of clanging synthesizers, yearning cello and swirling guitar reverb swallows the words. But even when that happens, it somehow amplifies the slippery ambivalence that is her signature. With Van Etten, nothing is ever nailed down.

“Looking for a way out/You touched on me deep/That’s why I’m still here,” she sings on “Taking Chances,” released as a video with her wearing bright red lipstick, having her Tarot cards read.

From “I Love You But I’m Lost” comes this wisely cynical line: “You love me/But you’ll change.”

In the past, Van Etten’s voice sometimes floated above the production like that of a cooing waif, with slides and sudden changes of volume that could imbue just a single word with multiple meanings and emotions. It still does, but here, she seems to have added some buoyant new vocal strategies.

On “Every Time the Sun Comes Up,” she cunningly adopts the straightforwardly cheery tone of a folk singer, then sabotages it with a blackly humorous video, as a campy vampire adds, “I’m in trouble.”

(Apparently, every day’s a challenge for Van Etten; luckily, she’s got a sense of humor.)

On the album’s piece de resistance, the agonizing, “I Know,” in which she realizes she has become “the lover on the side,” Van Etten declaims the lyrics in a huge, rich, alto that resonates more deeply than any amplified instrument on the album.

By the times she gets to Seattle, who knows what else she will have added to her repertoire?

9 p.m. Saturday, July 5, at the Neptune Theatre, 1303 N.E. 45th St., Seattle; $18-$20 (877-784-4849 or www.stgpresents.org).

Note: Barnett also appears at 7 p.m. Monday, July 7, at Sonic Boom Records, 2209 N.W. Market St., Seattle; free (206-297-2666 or www.sonicboomrecords.com).

Paul de Barros (206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com) covers music at blogs.seattletimes.com/soundposts/ or follow him on Twitter @pdebarros

 

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