. . .
I first became aware of the indie singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten on her third album, 2012’s Tramp. Produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner, on its best songs, Tramp places Van Etten’s massive voice over slightly off soundscapes, creating music that is equal parts dreamy and focused.
And the best of those songs was the first single, “Serpents”, which fades in with feedback from Bryce Dessner’s (the other Dessner in the National) guitar, Van Etten’s strummed guitar and a snare as she starts singing about getting away from an abusive relationship.
It was a close call
Sitting in the back of the room
With a boy you could own
But they didn’t know
Close in on my black eye
I feel safe at times
Tell me it’s time
As that verse goes on, the guitars get louder, the beat gets faster, and by the time we hit the haunting chorus, “Serpents” is in full-tilt mode:
Serpents in my mind
Looking for your crimes
I don’t want mine to this time
Two things kill on the chorus: first, the etherial harmony vocals by Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, and second the great drum part from The Walkmen’s Matt Barrick, who plays quick rolls on every other snare hit, which gives the chorus almost a stop-start quality which meshes well with the long gorgeous melody Van Etten wrote.
Then again, no amount of melody can disguise the “fuck you” bile in the second verse:
You enjoy sucking on dreams
So I will fall asleep with someone other than you
I had a thought you would take me seriously
And listen on
By this time, of course, “Serpents” is so big and loud and hypnotic that you might be excused for not even really paying attention to the lyrics, because the vocals are just part of the overall soundscape.
In the end, as Bryce Dessner lays a soaring e-bow guitar over the proceedings, “Serpents” just gets bigger and bigger and bigger until it finally just implodes into itself.
“Serpents” live on Sound Opinions, 2012
“Serpents” live at the Pitchfork Music Festival, 2014
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