Sharon Van Etten releases Remind Me Tomorrow in a very different world than her previous album, 2014’s Are We There. Indisputably, the political climate has changed, but more relevant is what she’s been up to in the half-decade since: Acting in a prestige a Netflix drama (The OA), scoring a feature film (Strange Weather), performing stand-up—all while raising a child with partner Zeke Hutchins. Van Etten’s peers have meanwhile moved in different directions, and after 40 demos written over two years, it was her turn for a musical reinvention.
While she could have opted for a more stripped-down sound than ever, much as Cat Power did on last year’s Wanderer, she’s instead sought out producer John Congleton for a synth-pop makeover. There are few producers more suitable for the task: Congleton’s signature sound boasts overdriven synths, saturated drums, and heavily processed vocals with a polished digital sheen, techniques he’s applied to work by Angel Olsen, St. Vincent, Strand of Oaks, and even The Decemberists. Paired with newfound influences like Nick Cave and Suicide, the collaboration makes Remind Me Tomorrow a glossy yet uniquely brittle record. Nothing is as uptempo as first single “Comeback Kid,” but the whole album retains the same chaotic energy.
Even as the lyrics can be frustratingly vague by Van Etten’s standards, her voice, pitched lower after a C-section, separates her and grounds Congleton’s extravagance. There is a lot going on. This bombast is not always successful: “Jupiter 4” is better as Donna Missal’s slinky rework “Jupiter” than as a lugubrious ballad, and “Malibu” concludes in an ambient interlude that drowns its songwriter out entirely. Great moments happen when the writing and production work together: “Memorial Day” envisions Van Etten’s son growing older (“you will run,” as it turns out, is literal) against the kind of dissonant backdrop that does justice to press-bio namedrops like Portishead. Slow burner “No One’s Easy to Love” and the roaring “Hands” are obvious candidates for future singles, even if the latter’s warped cymbal crashes and the former’s meditations on the expectations of parenthood don’t initially sound like it.
In quieter moments, Tomorrow can feel like a continuation of themes from Van Etten’s previous records. “I Told You Everything” plays like a distant epilogue to Tramp and Are We There, even opening on the same piano chord as Are We There’s “Afraid of Nothing.” Van Etten has written more than enough songs that viscerally detail the “everything” in that title, and so when she sings “You said / ‘Holy shit / You almost died,’” she doesn’t feel the need to elaborate. Remind Me Tomorrow turns on thoughts of growing older and reflecting on the past, resulting in some of Van Etten’s most mature lyrics to date. Most bittersweet is “Seventeen,” which applies radiant clarity to the hazy, faded production aesthetic of a band like the War on Drugs. Even when swamped in overproduction, Van Etten’s performances are uniformly the best of her career, and Congleton for once gives her the perfect amount of space when, midway through the song, she screams, “I know what you’re going to be / I know that you’re gonna be!” It’s tempting to attribute this delivery to her new acting experience, but there’s more than a decade of context behind this loaded moment, a crest of intensity rarely matched on previous records.
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Van Etten has often joked that that listeners ought to start worrying when she writes a happy song. She doesn’t do that here, but “Stay” is as close as she’s come. An unqualified beauty, “Stay” addresses the challenges of raising a child, especially now; if songs like “You Shadow” and “Seventeen” are about watching others make the same mistakes she once did, this closer is about accepting the futility of preventing them. “Find a way to stand / And a time to walk away / Letting go to let you lead / I don’t know how it ends,” she sings. Maybe Are We There was the better, rawer record, but underneath Congleton’s smothering production is an older, wiser writer. When even the biggest pop stars write directly about the precarities of mental health, hearing someone with Van Etten’s self-assurance is as comforting as the synths around her are abrasive.