Heartbreak can make prisoners of songwriters, trapping them in a whirlpool of doubt and misery. And whatever good intentions or poetic talent that existed at a song's inception can get swept away as the hard edges of truth are worn down by self-pity.
Rarely can a songwriter tackle heartbreak with the sort of commanding embrace that marks Sharon Van Etten's second album. Epic is full of songs that turn pain into power, never shying from truths or wandering into cliché.
Part of Van Etten's strength is that she plays a folk rock informed more by 1980s and 1990s punk and DIY bands than 1960s and 1970s singer-songwriters. But aside from her bracing, honest lyrics, most remarkable is how versatile Epic is musically, without ever seeming scattered.
Van Etten floats between genres—gentle folk, Liz Phair-type rock, alt-country ballad, dream pop—and holds it all together with her commanding voice, sounding like a bruised soul still brimming with confidence.
Epic begins with "A Crime," the type of acoustic confessional song that made up Van Etten's debut, Because I Was in Love. Then comes the pulsating rocker "Peace Signs," and "Save Yourself," guided by the soft sway of a pedal-steel guitar, and it's clear that Van Etten presents Epic as a sonic journey.
The album peaks with its final song, "Love More," an organ-based slow-builder that lays bare emotion right in your face.