Sharon Van Etten has been on a bit of a hiatus since her last release, 2014’s Are We There, but whilst taking a break from making music she has certainly kept herself busy. Since her last album she has turned her hand to acting (she appeared in surreal Netflix sci-fi series The OA ), composed for screen, studied counselling (after prompts from her fans who have found solace in her music), tried some comedy, relocated to LA, and had a child. It’s not surprising after these big shifts that Remind Me Tomorrow is a very different album to all of Van Etten’s work to date.
Working with producer John Congleton for the first time, Van Etten has made an album of some of her most ‘accessible’ music so far, both sonically and lyrically. This album marks a migration far from Are We There’ s self-produced folk/rock, into new art-pop realms, with Van Etten’s always soulful vocal framed by experimental drum textures and retro synth sounds (that she made with a Roland analogue on loan from actor Michael Cera, naturally).
Named after that button you absent-mindedly press daily to get rid of laptop software updates, Remind Me Tomorrow is as much about the everyday as it is reminders and reminiscences of a more earnest sort. It’s a boring trope to comment on how having children has changed the work of a woman artist, but themes of childhood, adolescent nostalgia and motherhood are at the core of the lyrical material on this album.
The opening track, ‘I Told You Everything’ is an anecdotal narrative about divulging a secret; “I told you everything/you said holy shit/you almost died,” Van Etten repeats again and again, over splashy ride cymbal, bright piano chords and fluttering pizzicato strings. We never find out what shocking secret was being disclosed, but this is a throwback that sets the scene for further recollections, and proves that Van Etten’s storytelling remains as captivating and personal as ever. The sound palette grows murkier on ‘Memorial Day’ – a spectral vocal echoing in a cavernous acoustic space surrounded by swooping reverberant guitars approaches the chilly and atmospheric avant-rock territories of Sigur Ros.
Then comes the firmest run of tracks on the album – the trio of ‘Comeback Kid’, ‘Jupiter 4’ and ‘Seventeen’ (all three previously released singles) are a toweringly charismatic and catchy lineup of songs that all but steal the show from the others. Bolshy and brave, ‘Comeback Kid’ is an anthem to the tenacity of a younger Van Etten, that gallops along powered by Arcade Fire-like organ solos and drums. With a music video showing Van Etten standing in front of projected photos of her younger self, this really is a tribute to carefree teenage years that continues on the standout ‘Seventeen’, an almost Springsteen-esque power ballad that both mourns simpler times and reflects on the stability of adulthood. “I see you so uncomfortably alone/I wish I could show you how much you’ve grown,” Van Etten sings to her seventeen year old self. Where those songs are about the past, ‘Jupiter 4’ is found very much in the present as a toasty warm and touching ballad about finally finding ‘the one’.
The remaining songs on the album have much to live up to, and it is fair to say that nothing else quite manages to escape the shadow cast by the real peak of the record. A highlight amongst the slightly forgettable trough of the album’s second half is the closing track ‘Stay’, a poignant and tender lullaby about inter-dependence and self-reliance in a mother/child relationship.
It is heartening to hear Van Etten writing music from her new-found position of peace and stability; a lot of the pain that is behind her previous music has been reconciled. Yet this album is not a simple celebration of recovery – Remind Me Tomorrow explores the complexities and humanities of parenthood, and this new personal identity comes with a fittingly refurbished sonic one. Yet, the solace that many fans found in Sharon Van Etten’s previously raw and hurting songs may have been lost in the process.
Words, Kate Walker