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Posted on June 3rd, 2015 (2:00 pm) by Nick Manai

Sharon Van Etten’s 2014 LP Are We There was a giant step forward in recording and pushed her name onto many year-end lists. Her previous recordings had always been compelling; her songwriting was marked by devastating intensity and emotional appeal and her vocals left you with the impression of someone giving every ounce of strength just get the damn thing out before breaking. But Are We There tangled those emotions in rich musical pairings, knowing when to work hard for melody and when to relax into austere contrast. The best songs tended to wash the singer-songwriter moniker over with electronic hooks or push folk instruments into the blackest corner.

I Don’t Want To Let You Down sounds more like 2012’s Tramp, a very good record in its own right, but one which lacked the bravado of musicianship that justified There so profoundly. Let You Down suffers in this time line. Were it to have come after Tramp, it would probably be helped by its comparatively increased focus on tune and melody. But we’ve already seen what Van Etten can do when she is really at her best, and by comparison the songs on this EP don’t feel like that same pinnacle.

The biggest exception is probably “I Always Fall Apart.” You can read Van Etten’s personal notes about each song over at NPR if you want to, but she isn’t pulling any punches or masking any feelings here either. “Where have you been?” she repeats to start off the song and her tone says the rest about the singer. She has been waiting, searching. One of the strengths of “Apart” is the easy-to-miss, but devastatingly beautiful piano chords that form the foundation. If you let yourself be sucked into Van Etten’s voice, and admittedly it is easy to have happen, you might miss the beauty in a song so hopelessly sad. “It’s not my fault/It’s just my flaw it’s who I am,” Van Etten utters with a shudder, as though she didn’t even know she was raising a pretty complicated existential question.

“Tell Me” really benefits from being a live track. The vocals are expansive; they almost echo, while the guitar sounds like a completely new instrument compared to the recording of the first two tracks. The title track and “Just Like Blood” feel like companions to the Aaron Dessner-produced Tramp, and they rely heavily on that baroque folk setup. Van Etten pulls all of this off better than most on I Don't Want To Let You Down, but it still stands in the shadow of her previous accomplishment.

Track List:

  1. I Don't Want To Let You Down
  2. Just Like Blood
  3. I Always Fall Apart
  4. Pay My Debts
  5. Tell Me (Live)
Sharon Van Etten: I Don't Want To Let You Down EP
Purchase at: Amazon | eMusic

Our Rating

73 / 100
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