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Out Of The Depths: Sharon Van Etten At Lincoln Hall

By Kim Bellware in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 20, 2012 10:00PM

Sharon Van Etten (Chicagoist/Kim Bellware)
Between 2010's Epic and the release of her latest effort, Tramp, Sharon Van Etten traded one set of emotionally-taxing experiences for another: Van Etten still draws from the visceral fallout of a bad relationship—this time with more distance and context—but wedged in are songs capturing the landscape of the year-plus she spent roving and rootless. If Epic was a reaction to the initial wound, Tramp is the journey and reflection that followed.

During the first of two sold-out shows she played at Lincoln Hall, Van Etten was captivating as ever. Playing a set loaded with her latest material, Van Etten activated her remarkable ability to grab your ears and your attention almost effortlessly. From the sturdy opening strains of "Warsaw," to "Give Out"—where Van Etten's directness and honesty is so bare it makes you shift in your seat—each song pulled you squarely into Van Etten's world for a few minutes.

But the overall effect was just that: a few minutes. Van Etten's Thursday night performance was many months removed from when she wrote and recorded Tramp, and the distance showed. While the album creates a heightened, moody experience, Van Etten in real-time didn't always square with the atmosphere in her songs. The easy laughter, the banter about her dad semi-seriously angling to be her onstage interpretive dancer and her endearing obsession with the classic '80s arcade game, Moon Patrol were absolutely charming... but more than a little distracting.

We've never considered Van Etten to be a maudlin performer (we've seen humor and goof-off moments before), but it took us a minute to reconcile the jovial Van Etten with her not-so-lighthearted songs. The trance was more distinctly broken this time around, and the emotional wallop we had expected from the record simply wasn't there. Whether it was an outcome she was aware of or not, Van Etten's songs were fortunately strong and persuasive enough that re-entry into the "mood" was relatively easy.

When not cracking wise, Van Etten and her band were spinning beautiful harmonies on tracks like "Peace Signs" and "Leonard," throwing in Omnichord, organ and textured, tender aspects that are becoming less and less common in rock songs. On the most kicked-up song of the night, Van Etten's encore cover of The Soft Boys'"I Wanna Destroy You" hit on the perfect blend of fun, aggression and feeling.

The atmospheric cognitive dissonance aside, Thursday's performance showed Van Etten in transition. In skilled hands such as hers, heavy subject matter like personal relationships can be mined for material almost indefinitely. But the further those experiences shrink in her rearview, it feels less and less likely that Van Etten will continue on that path. It will be well worth the listen to hear if she stays the course or pivots in a new thematic direction altogether.