Over the past decade, Sharon Van Etten has emerged as one of the most viscerally potent songwriters around, able to create gigantic-feeling songs that can have Taylor Swift levels of steely-eyed romantic recrimination: “The moral of the story is, don’t lie to me again,” she warned with scathing clarity on her early standout “Consolation Prize”; it’s the kind of line that’d leave whoever she’s singing to sleeping with one eye open.
Van Etten started out playing hushed, disgruntled folk rock, so she often gets tagged as an “indie” artist. But she’s always had bigger things in mind for her music; 2014’s Are We There was a haunted cathedral of stark synths, orchestral shadow play and stormy guitar drama. Her fantastic new album, Remind Me Tomorrow, ups her ambitions even further, pushing toward a grand, smoldering vision of pop that can bring to mind Lana Del Rey and St. Vincent (producer John Congleton has worked with both), and the New Wave warrior-queen spirit of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O.
Van Etten’s previous LPs rode a sepulchral slow-burn. This music is just as expansive, but the songs are sharply sculpted. “No One’s Easy to Love” is a hazy intimation of regret with a head-slap groove; on the hot single “Comeback Kid,” Van Etten sounds like an imperious Eighties MTV avenger, punching her way through gossamer synths and Phil Collins-huge tom-tom rumble. “Jupiter 4” is like a torch-ballad version of the interplanetary jazz David Bowie explored on Blackstar.
The music’s immediacy is reflected in a new generosity in her lyrics. The album opens with Van Etten alone at the piano for “I Told You Everything”: “Sitting at the bar, I told you everything/You said, ‘Holy shit,’ ” she sings. The song evolves into a lushly spacey Portishead-style track as she sings about holding hands, sharing a shot, and a confidence that transcends bad memories. She locates the Springsteen-ian nostalgia in the surging “Seventeen” and sums up the exasperated joy of becoming a new parent in the tender trip-hop/soul ballad “You Shadow”: “Use loving words and be gentle and kind,” she advises, like an indie-rock Mr. Rogers.
The most striking moment might be “Malibu,” a swaying California car song about “a couple dudes who don’t give a fuck” falling in love as they drive down Interstate 101. It’s gorgeous yet ringed by scary electronics — like a Joni Mitchell song lost in a Suicide synth-punk dirge, or like Malibu itself, a paradise recently ravaged by wildfires. Yet if the fear is timely, the freedom she sings about — and embodies throughout the album — feels eternal.