Monday, January 21st, 2019

Sharon Van Etten – Seventeen

Standing out, thinking back…


Josh Love: “Seventeen” shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does. Pop songs exploring nostalgia and vanished youth are almost as old as pop itself; hell, when I think of songs that reflect on being 17, I’m first thinking of a 26 year-old Simpsons parody of a 1966 Sinatra tune. Above all else, though, Sharon Van Etten’s newest is just a wonderfully insistent, impassioned rocker that dares you to get lost inside its steely, driving rhythm, judiciously broken up with the occasional discordant synth showing the welcome effects of producer John Congleton’s involvement. Meanwhile, Van Etten doles out both wisdom and comfort to her younger self and marks the passage of time by the disappearance of her teenage haunts, a tendency to which we can all relate. Speaking for myself, I feel particularly susceptible to sharing Van Etten’s headspace here considering we’re just a few months apart in age, and when she ever-so-slightly tweaks the chorus near the song’s end to say “halfway through this life,” well, I just want to scream at a younger version of myself, “IT ME.”

Vikram Joseph: As an age, 17 seems to hold an unparalleled romantic appeal for songwriters and screenwriters alike; there’s something evocative about the very sound of the word, not to mention the commonly-applied implications: self-discovery, nascent adulthood, and the loss of something intangible. That intangible thing is often called “freedom,” which seems facile — a lot of us weren’t free in any real sense at 17. Sharon Van Etten’s “Seventeen” is much more nuanced than most elegies to that age; as a letter to her younger self, it’s direct but multifaceted, accepting that something (perhaps a pluripotency, the existence of multiple paths which hadn’t yet been closed off?) has been lost along the way, but also recognising that being 17 was fucking hard (“I see you so uncomfortably alone”) and acknowledging the growth that’s taken place in between. It’s also the most streamlined song of her career; taut, driving, startlingly pop in its instincts. It feels restrained, until it’s suddenly not, Van Etten full-throttle howling the middle eight, the emotions inherent in bridging the gaps between your different selves across time released as a violent river. Paired with an intense, psycho-geographical video featuring her native New York City, it makes for a powerful origin story: a visceral, heartfelt anthem for a seventeen-year-old girl.

Crystal Leww: New York as a rock music concept been done (to death) before and early-aughts indie rock nostalgia was so 2018. “Seventeen” functions better as the backing track to the TV adaptation of Meet Me In The Bathroom than an actual track.

Thomas Inskeep: This nicely has the heft and force of a better Ryan Adams record (for some reason it brings to my mind “New York, New York”), or a tougher Jenny Lewis one. Van Etten sings with supreme confidence.

Alfred Soto: Building toward a crackling electro-fueled climax, this mix of Fever Ray and early Roxy captures the tumult in the heart and brain of a young person on the edge of adulthood. 

Matias Taylor: It sounds like it was meant to be played while driving down that street she’s singing about, wistfully looking at a now-abandoned storefront that used to be the “downtown hotspot” of your youth, as you wonder just how much nostalgia is making the past seem better than it really was before speeding onward to an equally uncertain future.

Jonathan Bradley: A scorched and frayed elegy for the glowing hope and abyssal enormity of youth, peered at through a sudden veil and over Factory Records drums and soul piano chords. Van Etten’s lament is not far removed compositionally from songs by Sky Ferreira or Pale Waves, but her voice is frozen with distance, its veins thickened with fondness and fear, and the braided emotion formed from nostalgia when its longing is tempered with disgust. Her voice tears as it tries to bridge the unbridgeable, and a snagged guitar solo tugs away too. When she looks back on her younger self, each sees the other incompletely, and it’s that gap between “you think you’re so carefree” and “[you’re] afraid that you’ll be just like me” that time devours entirely.

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: There’s so much to love here — the way Van Etten marries a weary resignation and a loving nostalgia so perfectly in her lyrics, but also how she lets it all go into the wordless melody when the time is right — but the sound of “Seventeen” that I hold dearest is those squalls of distorted guitar that break through the song’s second half. More than anything else, they sound like what being 17 feels. It’s all of the rage and false knowledge and purity of purpose and freedom and failure all bound up into one, an unstoppable force of memory that transports me every time.

Joshua Minsoo Kim: What makes “Seventeen” so affecting is how its lyrics are relatively unspecific. In keeping them straightforward and sometimes ambiguous, Sharon Van Etten captures the difficulty that comes with reflecting on one’s growth, even if the end result is of general satisfaction. I don’t want to think about the loneliness or attempts at self-sabotage that define certain periods of my life, but it’s sometimes important to see the incremental changes I’ve made to shift from a mode of thinking and living that seemed impossible to escape. The driving drum beat assuages the pain of such an act. Funny how the line most emblematic of such a mood is also the song’s least descriptive: a wistful, bittersweet “La la la la la la la.”

Katherine St Asaph: I dislike, in aggregate, the thing where singer-songwriters who get buzz immediately add puffier synths and bigger-name producers to each record and generally slouch toward Katy Perry. But I can’t deny that individually it works for some people, like Annie Clark and now apparently Sharon Van Etten. John Congleton’s track, gleaming and buzzing like a high-tech garage door, boots Van Etten’s performance out of the oatmeal muck of her past work. But like much of Congleton’s production, it has a middling ceiling. It’s telling how, when Van Etten lets loose, she completely overpowers the backing track, rendering it nothing: a machete to a diorama.

Reader average: [5.92] (13 votes)

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5 Responses to “Sharon Van Etten – Seventeen”

  1. Very good

  2. A+ parody of pretentious, florid rock-critic doggerel, Jonathan.

  3. Cool feedback, sometimes I write good things and sometimes I don’t. Hope you keep reading, Bruce!

  4. I want more “pretentious, florid rock-critic doggerel” if that’s what we’re calling Jonathan’s blurb here. When I initially read it I was very much moved by the last line.

  5. If I knew what “time devours entirely” meant I would probably have been moved, too. It’s a nice-sounding phrase.