Review: Surprise! Sharon Van Etten’s still amazing

More often than not, extended play (EP) releases are a letdown for me. They can often equate, like a lot of internet mixtapes coming out in hip-hop at the moment, to hastily assembled afterthoughts to the stuff an artist actually worked on. The natural result of that is that an EP’s acid test is whether the songs would stand up on the artist’s last album – or maybe, on their next. Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There was one of my favourite albums of 2014, and now 12 months later she’s released an EP called I Don’t Want To Let You Down.

As far I was concerned, it was probably going to be little more than an unnecessary addition to Are We There, which saw Van Etten master her voice as an instrument, as well as a story teller. Your Love is Killing Me really sounded like she was being killed, such was the chorus’ low ferocity. And her vocals on the album’s best track, Every Time the Sun Comes Up, permeated a sense of stoic resignation – as if she was grimacing as she confessed she could never do anything right.

The EP’s title track kicks off where Van Etten left us. When I saw Van Etten live a few months ago, she said she came up with the song watching the film ‘Overboard’ starring Goldie Hawn. But the refrain is about the only similarity the track bears with the Goldie Hawn rom-com, and Van Etten. The personal, conversational feel of all Van Etten does is not-oft heard. I Don’t Want to Let You Down is basically just her throwing her deepest fears out in the open for literally thousands of people to hear. It’s painful, confronting, but ultimately refreshing.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o9-_zXnFGOs]

On Are We There, she sang about being broken by a lover, but here, on I Always Fall Apart, a different thought betrays here: “You know I always fall apart/It’s not my fault/It’s just my flaw/It’s who I am.” The real masterstroke of the song comes in retrospect. The last line, “…Where have you been?” is the same as the first one. Despite the admissions that come in the middle of the song, she explicitly falls back into her old flaws. It’s a genius piece of lyricism from a songwriter in top form.

There’s no noticeable change of tack in instrumentation or direction on the EP, but that doesn’t stop every song bringing something new to Van Etten’s back catalogue. The dark, dramatic Pay My Debts turns hypnotically on the chorus’ hook, while the piano-driven Just Like Blood is gorgeous in its restraint.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JNIi0rxMVpY]

The final track, Tell Me, was recorded live last year at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre Del Liceu. The single guitar intro is reminiscent of another Are We There standout, Tarifa, in which Van Etten remembered feeling trapped by a suffocating ex-lover. The similarity is fitting, then, as the song is an extension of Tarifa’s themes.  Van Etten sounds her most defiant when she declares, “Sometimes, I don’t think about you…” Again, it’s painful, because every song I’ve ever heard from her takes pleasure in dwelling on feelings of lovesickness and regret.

But then, aren’t we the same as her, to gain pleasure from listening to this kind of depressing, wonderful music?

So does this EP succeed in my acid test? Are We There cemented Van Etten’s place in the pantheon of modern-day songwriters, and all five songs here are just as good –some even better – as her most recent album. Whether this is an epilogue to that chapter, a continuation or a dissolve into a new one, I Don’t Want to Let You Down is the five-song, 22-minute jewel in the crown Van Etten has earned.

I Don’t Want to Let You Down is out June 9 on Jagjaguwar.