Concert review: Sharon Van Etten at the Wexner Center

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Midway through Sharon Van Etten's concert at the Wexner Center, the musician introduced one mournful number by saying, "This song is about therapy, and people who should go but don't."

Judging by the subject matter that dominated the hourlong set, the singer-songwriter's concerts could serve as a welcome alternative. Songs touched on intimate topics like heartache, self-loathing, regret, empowerment, depression, revenge, co-dependency and confusion, and a team of therapists could easily spend hours unpacking the layers of meaning in her shattered confessions. But while Van Etten's words typically projected an unnerving fragility - "He can break me with one hand," she cooed on the disquieting "Break Me" - the music itself tended to move with earned confidence.

The singer, backed by a four-piece band, typically favored rounded edges, and the music, save for a pair of comparatively jagged, set-closing tunes, functioned as a lushly appointed cocoon, awash in atmospheric synthesizer, softly bobbing bass and the muted thump of mallets tapping drums. Van Etten's ethereal voice, as soft and textured as velvet, projected a similar sense of comfort, and it had a tendency to glide eagle-like above the mix even in those moments she crooned about being pinned to the bottom of a well.

Between songs, the musician chatted with the crowd, cracked cornball jokes ("I make stupid jokes [and] I'll never give it up," she pledged) and took stock of her museum surroundings. "This is serious stuff," she whispered, like a gallery visitor nervously sharing thoughts on a de Kooning.

Each time the music kicked back in, however, this playful façade faded, and Van Etten repeatedly flayed herself on a series of battered songs that left blood on the stage. The lilting "Tarifa" began with the musician singing, "Hit the ground," and only plunged deeper from there - "Chew me out when I'm stupid," she sneered. On "Don't Do It," which opened amidst a chorus of ghoulish vocals and heavy sighs of guitar before shifting into a full-band affair, the narrator repeatedly demanded a lover do his or her worst.

"Your Love Is Killing Me," as discomforting as it was beautiful, upped the ante even further, Van Etten singing, "Break my legs so I won't walk to you/ Cut my tongue so I can't talk to you/ Burn my skin so I can't feel you/ Stab my eyes so I can't see." The music matched her intensity, layering on corrosive guitar, jittery keyboard and sharp, forceful drums (played with actual drumsticks rather than mallets).

"Serpents" exhibited a similarly freewheeling, angst-ridden spirit, building on slithering bass, tightly coiled guitar and Van Etten's cutting words, which lashed outward rather than plunging inward. "You enjoy sucking on dreams," she seethed. "So I will fall asleep with someone other than you."

While nothing performed on this evening could be described as light, the arc of the concert - emotionally heavy, musically insular tunes gradually gave way to more spirited cuts - suggested the whole music-as-therapy thing is working for the singer. Either way, it remains a pleasure to listen in as she wrestles publically with her most private thoughts.