Sharon Van Etten has never needed much room to make a grand statement. Consider that, with four albums diligently released during the last six years, she’s become one of music’s most astute new cartographers of the heart, able to capture emotional trials and triumphs with incisive lines and a voice that loses nothing in the translation and transmission of feelings. Her second record, epic, needed only seven tracks to live up to its title and to culminate in “Love More,” a song where perseverance overpowered pain. Her subsequent albums for Jagjaguwar, 2012’s Tramp and last year’s Are We There, went longer, but Van Etten managed still to squeeze enormous sentiments into especially small spaces. “Serpents” captured the existential anxiety of every relationship in three minutes. “Your Love is Killing Me” lasted twice as long, but tripled its weight with romance, love, submission and regret, ultimately wrestling with trauma and fighting it off through clanging pianos, overdriven guitars and a rhythm section that had its singer’s back. From start to rising stardom, Van Etten has forever understood the impact of economy.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the five-song EP I Don’t Want to Let You Down functions as much more than some between-albums, on-tour stopgap. In only 22 minutes, Van Etten and a sterling crew of collaborators offer documents of surrender and disappointment, admission and longing. The gorgeous “Just Like Blood” manages to capture all four facets in less than five minutes. Produced by Van Etten and Stewart Lerman, who also helmed Are We There, these songs are as sophisticated and evolved as anything Van Etten has ever done.
Supported by the string section of Peter Broderick and Heather Woods-Broderick during “I Always Fall Apart,” Van Etten’s voice rises alongside the piano she plays. Her prismatic harmonies betray the terror of the song’s central admission and one of the new lyrical cornerstones of her catalogue: “You know I always fall apart/It’s not my fault/It’s just my flaw/It’s who I am.”
During the title track, she slowly pushes her voice past an introductory murmur, as if scanning her surroundings for the resolve to be stronger and more steadfast than she knows she has been. The song builds across its four minutes, the desperation of the title expressed through guitars that get bigger, harmonies that get broader. The chorus is a sing-along commandment, an indelible promise Van Etten makes to be better. The War on Drugs’ Adam Granduciel and David Hartley join Antibalas’ Stuart Bogie and the Brodericks for “Pay My Debts.” The longest song here, it’s a cinematic number that smolders like shoegaze and percolates like minimal techno before climaxing into an inescapable seesaw refrain. Lost in the hook, you too become a champion for Van Etten’s causes.
I Don’t Want to Let You Down ends with a live rendition of “Tell Me,” captured last December at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre Del Liceu. The song, a Van Etten gem about yearning for affections that may never be reciprocated, had previously been available only on an expanded edition of Tramp. That acoustic demo remains intimate and wonderful, a showcase for the remarkable candor of Van Etten’s voice. But backed here by her four-piece touring band, the tune becomes a kind of battle cry for respect and a charged pronouncement of Van Etten’s cultivated powers. It’s a map of the singer’s progression from an acoustic songwriter to a bona fide bandleader, a reminder of the poignancy and efficiency her work has long paired. “Sometimes, I don’t think about you,” Van Etten sings, her voice breaking upward into resolution during that last phrase. You believe her all over again.