To ‘gloam’ is an archaic verb that means ‘to grow dark’. Thus, on Remind Me Tomorrow, Sharon Van Etten has reappeared, and you’d believe she’s spent the last five years ‘gloaming’ in some fetid morgue somewhere with only snakes and eyeliner for company.
Her most extrovert, lean and unabashedly gothic record yet, Remind Me Tomorrow is a widescreen exploration of the horrors of living, a larger canvas for her to paint her very own ‘Guernica’. You can tell she’s having fun playing with a wider range of toys in a bigger sandbox, with John Congleton as her partner in crime – despite it being a hideously, almost comically dark record, it’s actually a lot of fun, and a noticeable artistic progression.
Hearing the jump between previous record Are We There (itself a minor masterpiece) and this one is staggering – Van Etten seems to be firing on all metaphorical cylinders here, all the way through: 2019 is to Sharon Van Etten what 1901 was to Gustav Klimt: the year an already-magnificent artist reached the peak of their powers.
Album teaser “Comeback Kid” blew the bloody doors off – gigantic goth rock like early Siouxsie and the Banshees in a cave in Transylvania. Sure, some of her earlier work was bleak, but this felt blacker than a wormhole. Befitting of adjectives like ‘saturnine’, but also ‘groovy’ and ‘loose’, “Comeback Kid” is funky in the sense of rhythm but also in the sense that it stinks like a graveyard. Funky.
The rest of the album continues to darken the palette of Van Etten’s sound. Considerably. It opens with the deceptively earnest-sounding “I Told You Everything”, led by piano and bare voice. A throbbing swell of synthesizer later, and you’re launched into the depths of Remind Me Tomorrow’s gloomy pools of sound via skipping beats and barely-there gossamer guitar strums.
The cheerfully-titled “No One’s Easy to Love” sounds exactly like you’d imagine it would. Crunchy, dubby bass struts while beats skitter and clatter around. “Memorial Day” is trip-hop draped in noir atmospherics, with vocals layered until they have a choral gravitas.
Across the five crepuscular minutes of “Jupiter 4”, Van Etten’s vocals alternate between devilishly seductive and downright cheerless, against a stark sonic backdrop. Touted as being her take on Bruce Springsteen’s heartland rock, “Seventeen” actually sounds like Springsteen’s take on The Cure. There’s that classic rollicking rhythm, but it’s tempered by injections of phased Seventeen Seconds guitar squall.
When album highlight “Malibu” starts, it’s starkly minimal, before it erupts into something Bowie might have put out in 1977. There are glacial synths, frigid atmospherics... it’s the sound of a decaying future coloured like concrete and steel, a Ballardian dystopia. It, too, is a minor masterpiece.
Despite being deceptively buoyant, “You Shadow” is, in essence, grotesque. All of the human edges are distorted and fuzzy, as though run through with electricity – it’s a Frankenstein’s monster of a track. The dark carnival continues on “Hands”, a suffocatingly dense monstrosity made up of screeches, crashes and a hulking, lolloping bassline.
It all comes to a relatively sedate, positively greyscale close with a handful of borrowed Portishead vibes on “Stay”. It’s a welcome reprieve after all of the horror, a salve for all of the gaping wounds Van Etten inflicts over the previous nine songs.
In terms of where it stands in her catalogue of previous masterworks, this is undoubtedly the crown jewel. This record is, much like Anna Calvi’s Hunter from last year, the culmination of something – it's the completion of a project years in the making. Much like Hunter, Remind Me Tomorrow is brutal, but it’s honest and open and true about how grim life is sometimes. By not pulling her punches, Van Etten has seemingly done the impossible – reinvented herself by doubling down on her own artistic tendencies.
She bet on black and won.