It says a lot about the peculiar path that Sharon Van Etten’s career has taken that the opening track from her first album is now perhaps best known for her having delivered it in character in an episode of a Netflix science fiction show.
She sang “I Wish I Knew” when she was asked to audition for the part of Rachel on last year’s under-the-radar mystery series The OA, and the song wound its way into the programme proper. It’s the latest twist in Van Etten’s story since she wrapped touring for her fourth album, Are We There, which was met with unanimous acclaim upon release in 2014. She turned up in the revival of Twin Peaks earlier this year, too, playing “Tarifa” at the Roadhouse at the express request of David Lynch. All the while, she’s actually been back at school in New York, in the process of finishing her psychology degree. As of March, she's a mother now, too.
All of which is to say that it feels like a long time since her last record came out, let alone her first, which dates all the way back to 2009. Even without applying the context of Van Etten’s personal development to the time that’s passed since, the leaps and bounds that she’s made musically are clear upon revisiting Because I Was in Love. This new remixed and remastered version of the record really brings home how much of a solo affair it felt, especially by way of comparison to everything that came next.
Just a year later, on Epic, she was already gravitating towards a noisier sound driven by the electric guitar, something that she maintained well into the polished, Aaron Dessner-produced Tramp in 2012, which featured a handsome range of collaborators from Beirut’s Zach Condon to Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner. Are We There, meanwhile, was very much a full band affair, both on record and in terms of its live presentation.
Because I Was in Love, though, did not involve a great deal in the way of embellishment. For the most part, it’s Van Etten’s confessionals over acoustic guitars, with subtle backing vocals and snatches of percussion rolling away in the background here and there. It’d be difficult to imagine her turning in something quite this singular now, but the hazily introspective likes of “Consolation Prize” and “Same Dream” are representative of her songwriting approach when stripped down to its simplest level. She was evidently still finding her feet, both as a lyricist and as a singer. She flirts with metaphor on “Tornado” and “Keep”; “I Fold” and “For You”, meanwhile, are much sharper to the point. Vocally, she floats between soothing low-key (“Much More Than That”) and more cutting tones (“It’s Not Like”).
This new version of the album, dubbed (It Was) Because I Was in Love, ostensibly comes with two new tracks, although both “I’m Giving Up on You” and “You Didn’t Really Do That” have long since been out in the wild - they were released on a seven-inch just ahead of Epic in 2010, and neatly bridge the gap between the two albums. More noteworthy here, then, is the new mix of the original tracks, which preserves and in some cases accentuates the warmth of Greg Weeks’ production - a crucial part of the original’s appeal, given how predisposed to a cold and clinical atmosphere albums like this can be, so cleanly recorded and compositionally sparse. The scale of Van Etten’s ambition - musical and otherwise - is now such that we’re never likely to see her make a wholesale return to this kind of territory; as a document of her songwriting origins, though, (It Was) Because I Was in Love is fascinating.