Anyone would forgive Sharon Van Etten for not bothering with her fifth album. As she recently told The Irish Times, music was making her miserable, so she took a break in 2015. Not the usual kind of breakthrough; New Jersey native Van Etten went back to university to study psychology (she has always harbored an ambition to be a therapist), she tried her hand at stand-up comedy, and starred in Netflix show The OA and in the reboot of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Oh, and she’s now a mother to a two-year-old boy with her partner and manager, Zeke Hutchins. Van Etten is now approaching music with a fresh outlook, and it shows on the synth-heavy Remind Me Tomorrow.
The title comes from one of the menu options in response to a software update, and this flipping of the mundane into the thought-provoking characterizes this intelligent album.
Van Etten’s last release, 2014’s Are We There, was an autopsy of a failed relationship. Remind Me Tomorrow is full of insightful and mature takes on what it actually means to relate to another person, as well as dealing with your own anxieties. The album opens with ‘I Told You Everything’, which is the closest Van Etten comes to a full-blown story song. A couple sits in a bar, drinking shots, and telling their secrets. They’re past the early infatuation stage; now it’s time to talk about their damage. This is a different kind of relationship, a more mature one, where shocking secrets won’t drive a wedge between the couple; “I told you everything, no change in your eyes”. Van Etten’s voice soars over dramatic piano chords and a persistent synth beat. It’s an attention-grabbing opener.
Van Etten relies a lot less on guitars this time around and there are hints of St Vincent in parts of the album. Second track ‘No-one’s Easy to Love’ has some Fiona Apple-like distortion, and suitably it deals with the recurrence of old anxieties “the resistance to feeling something you’ve put down before”. It would come as no surprise to the casual listener that the author of these lyrics has studied the human mind, but to her credit, Van Etten never falls into psychobabble.
Her emotional intelligence and voice are used to their best effect on ‘Seventeen’, where her soaring vocals address her younger self. It’s a moving, emotive song, and one of the highlights of the album.
‘Comeback Kid’ is a catchy tune and a wise choice for a single (and a wry one too, given her five-year hiatus from music).’Jupiter 4’ is suitably dreamy and spacey, while ‘Malibu’ gives into an achy, beautiful nostalgia. The penultimate track, ‘Hands’ is as frantic and angsty as it gets, and we are gently ushered out by the album with the dreamy ‘Stay’. Remind Me Tomorrow is a contemplative, clever album, one to be savored.