As she’s said in recent interviews, many life changes went into veteran indie singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten’s fifth and latest — and dramatically different — album, “Remind Me Tomorrow.” She summarizes it thus in the album’s bio: “I wrote this record while going to school, pregnant, after taking ‘The OA’ audition,” she says, referring to the Netflix series in which she appears as a recurring character (somewhere in there, she also wrote the score for Katherine Dieckmann’s film “Strange Weather” and the closing title song for Tig Notaro’s show “Tig”). “I want to be a mom, a singer, an actress and go to school [for a degree in psychology], and yeah, I have a stain on my shirt, oatmeal in my hair and I feel like a mess, but I’m here. Doing it.”
Both the chaos and the focus of such Olympic-level multitasking are reflected in the album, which is a reinvention of the more conventional indie-rock singer-songwriter sound of her past albums, the most recent of which was 2014’s “Are We There.” Bored with the conventional rock-band format, she embraced electronics — but while such drastic shifts usually result in a fan-alienating, fish-out-of-water overreach (as evidenced by too many EDM- or hip-hop-influenced albums by too many rock or pop artists to number), instead Van Etten’s songs sound remarkably natural in their new setting.
Van Etten had a perfect collaborator for this sonic shift: prolific producer John Congleton, who has brought his brand of sonic precision to a wide variety of artists over the past few years — St. Vincent, the Decemberists, Angel Olsen, Suuns and many others. Here, he incorporates some elements from albums he did with those artists — the idiosyncratic songwriting of St. Vincent, the more conventional singing of Olsen, the streamlining of unusual sounds with Suuns — without making Van Etten sound like any of them. “Remind Me Tomorrow” is electronic-based without ever sounding like dance music; it’s atmospheric and cinematic and evocative without ever distracting from the songs.
And while it sounds different from anything Van Etten has ever done, it also never sounds like anyone but her: Her big, sweeping choruses and singer-songwritery melodies adapt surprisingly well to their new context, with heavy, synthetic basslines and sparkling electronic embellishments accenting her echo-laden, multi-tracked vocals. The songs, not surprisingly, reflect the massive changes the past few years have brought her. In “Seventeen,” which could be to a 17-year-old or to her younger self (or both), she sings, “Down beneath the ashes and stone/ Sure of what I’ve lived and have known/ I see you so uncomfortably alone/ Wish I could show you how much you’ve grown.” Toward the end, the song climaxes with some throat-shredding singing that was put in dramatic relief during her appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel” earlier this week. That combination of calm focus and chaos perfectly encapsulates the album, and probably Van Etten’s past few years.