Sharon Van Etten’s latest release, the five-song EP I Don’t Want to Let You Down, acts as a companion piece to the reverberated pain felt on last year’s Are We There, giving us a full bodied look at her heartache. On her earlier work, Van Etten invoked Jeff Buckley’s powerful vocals over 90’s-inspired distorted guitars and shimmering organs that echoed as though they were recorded in a Gothic cathedral. These days, Van Etten beautifully harmonizes her broken heart in a different setting. This most recent release is far more reserved than its predecessor as Van Etten seems to prefer a lounge piano over the distorted guitars that colored her earlier work.
The EP opens with the title track, “I Don’t Want to Let You Down,” a pop song at its core filled with what would be derivative, stagnant indie rock instrumentation if not for the saving grace of Van Etten’s masterful songwriting, powerful voice and harmonies. Her lyricism, the song’s ever-moving melody and its catchy chorus make this song a standout track – not only on this EP but in the artist’s entire catalog – and provides a smooth bridge from Are We There.
The two following tracks “Run Like Blood” and “I Always Fall Apart” are piano-based numbers sprinkled with delicate, swelling strings and a timbre that calls on Fiona Apple and Cat Power. If these songs were a little more upbeat, they could be found on Beck’s recent effort Morning Phase – to which Van Etten was also, either consciously or subconsciously, drawing the EP cover art from.
On a release overflowing with transparency and honesty, “I Always Fall Apart” proves itself to be the prime example of Van Etten’s authenticity. Through what may be her best lyricism on this EP, we get Van Etten at her most confident and most self-reflective. She croons, “I can’t believe the way I’ve been/ I’ve been resentful and I’ve sinned…I know who I am and what I’ve done / Don’t know what I will do but when I look to my side/ I’ll be a friend.” This track is Van Etten’s cry for help; a distribution of both personal and interpersonal blame. The song ends with the artist coming to terms with her faults.
With a pounding bassline and reversed guitar line, Van Etten creates the best atmosphere on the album with “Pay My Debts,” although it is the odd song out on the release. It does not seem to fit with the vibe of rest of the EP; the song would be more suited on a previous release as it has the heaviest traces of folk influences that are otherwise ignored on the other songs.
The album comes back around with the final song “Tell Me.” A track that, had it not been for the applause at the end, one would assume had been recorded in the studio. Van Etten’s perfect voice and the tightness of the backing band leaves no room for disputing the talent of this young but seasoned singer/songwriter. Ending the album on this live track opens up a new intimacy with the EP that, when giving the record another listen, makes the listener feel as though they are in her presence making I Don’t Want to Let You Down even more special.
So go ahead, start the record over again if you haven’t already.