Sharon Van Etten review: A fragile voice amid the looming clouds

Sharon Van Etten
Vivid Live, Sydney Opera House, June 1

The rain-washed synths and bass; the creeping touch of gloom, hidden in the folds of inky black, but felt nonetheless; a pale face emerging from dark hair and dark velvet suit; a voice singing of love that “is for real” yet which somehow feels like a fantasy, or at best a pending loss that is “echoing echoing”.

Then an hour later, in the first moment of the encore, a song that isn’t just in shadow, but made of shadows: a bleak landscape of piano and ultra-basic drums with voices coming from the corners; a tale of confession and connection (“Sitting at the bar, I told you everything/ You said, ‘holy shit, you almost died'”) that slides away like desperation.

And then the storm-looming Malibu and, right on its heels, the thunder-crashing Hands. Goodness. A week after The Cure had performed Disintegration with surprising elevation in the neighbouring hall, was this Sharon Van Etten and band offering the best ultra-goth Cure in decades?

Yes, but not exactly. Not in any way the full story. For that would not adequately describe the coiled force of Comeback Kid, where a torch song was given power quite thrillingly, and the understated physicality of No One’s Easy To Love, and how they come from the same source as the recession town country rock of You Shadow (those industrial guitar sounds!) and the slowcore prettiness of Every Time The Sun Comes Up.

Nor would it capture the Portishead-like disquiet of Memorial Day, with its harsh sounds and lost-in-the-wind words, the chanson-style dramatic throb for Tarifa, and how she takes Bruce Springsteen’s obsession with Suicide into something as starkly, uncomfortably attractive as 17.

At all times, Van Etten was compelling to watch, comfortable in the drama as much as the prowl across stage. But that would only capture part of the story, for two moments of contrast said as much about the soul of the show as any of the darkness, implied or real.

In her beautiful solo piano cover of Sinead O’Connor’s Black Boys On Mopeds (a song of fear and hope by a mother watching a cracking apart world, now sung by a newish mother watching the same thing 30 years later) and the night’s closing Love More (a song of pain being the start of something better, not its end), Van Etten held something fragile but tenacious.

And trusted us to see it too despite the looming clouds.

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