Gig review: Sharon Van Etten at Leeds University Stylus

Sharon Van Etten
Sharon Van Etten
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Sharon Van Etten is crouched on the stage floor, her leather trousers pulled tight as she reaches one hand towards the front row.

It’s a classic rock pose that doesn’t quite match her self-description as a ‘five foot five wallflower’.

The Brooklyn-based songwriter has nonetheless gained newfound confidence since taking a break from the music industry. During the last five years she became a mother, studied psychology, and acted in The OA. She funnelled these experiences into her return, largely eschewing folk-rock guitar in favour of keyboard on this year’s Remind Me Tomorrow.

It’s a brave career move but it fails to convince, even when delivered by a sturdy four-piece backing band on the last UK date of her current tour.

The new material maintains the emotional honesty for which she made her name but it also has an identity crisis, with ‘Comeback Kid’ being electro-pop and ‘Seventeen’ teen-baiting Bruce Springsteen. ‘Memorial Day’, which adds chimes to the gothic darkness of early Warpaint, initially captivates with its evil bass-synth but it soon becomes apparent that it’s a substitute for a song structure or strong melody.

The amorphous nature of the tracks is recurrent throughout, especially on brooding opener ‘Jupiter 4’ and the electronic, punk infused drones of ‘Malibu’. It becomes even more evident when contrasted with the sharply defined edges of earlier material such as the soulful country ballad ‘Tarifa’ and restrained folk-rock of ‘Give Out’. Both deliver early emotional punches, with the harmony vocals of keyboardist Heather Woods Broderick bringing cool vulnerability to their lyrical jags.

Despite this she remains capable of drawing on personal experience to bring rawness to her performance. A solo, keyboard version of Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Black Boys On Mopeds’ – which she claims gained fresh relevance when she had a son – has power in its simple delivery and reverb. It’s a sign that she hasn’t lost her potency, even if it needs a reminder today rather than tomorrow.