Sharon Van Etten’s album Tramp is awesome, and you should check it out if you haven’t already. It’s been one of my favorites this year, but there’s one song that stands out as one of the best released in 2012 so far. The song, “All I Can,” falls right in the middle of the album, and it both sums up everything before it and after it. Van Etten has described her music as “self-therapy,” and due to the confessional nature of the lyrics, it might be easy to dismiss her as being concerned with her problems above others in the grand scheme of things. However, it’s with “All I Can” that Van Etten’s mission statement, via this song, this album, and her discography, become stunningly clear. In fact, we can trace it all down to one singular line:
“wanting to show / I want my scars to help and heal”
When Van Etten described her work as “self-therapy,” it’s not the fact that she’s pushing her emotions out into the world that’s therapeutic — it’s the idea of turning these negative emotions into something that can touch and help others. “Even though I try to stand / even though it’s slowly / I do all I can” sings Van Etten before the track erupts at its loudest. Tramp is a dark album, to be sure, but it’s not a depressing one. It’s melancholic, but it’s not aggressively sad. “All I Can” embodies all of this in a little less than 5 minutes.
“All I Can” starts with the sound of slight keys before Van Etten’s wavering vocals come in. She sounds tired, she sounds bruised, but she doesn’t sound beaten. One by one, the instruments joined in with her: first acoustics, then light bass, then electrics, and shortly after the above line is delivered, the drums come in. The song is just one gigantic crescendo — one that doesn’t have a particular chorus or refrain. The chords Van Etten uses is not a typical 12-bar blues progression either, it gradually shifts, never staying in one place too long. Tramp was recorded during a time when Sharon Van Etten was between homes (hence the name), and much of the album has a transient feel to it. By the time the horns come in proper, “All I Can” is in full swing and as triumphant as anything Van Etten has ever written.
When I first heard the song, I thought it would have made the perfect closing track for Tramp, and on second thought, I thought it would have made a wonderful introduction track. After listening to the album several times, I realize that the track is perfectly placed: right in the middle. “All I Can” is the Rosetta stone that unlocks everything you need to know and feel about Tramp.