Tough and controlled but also ever so slightly unhinged, “Serpents” slays me from start to finish. The intro is all guitars, an ideal combination of drone and drive, with an unresolved chord at the center. (And I have established my predilection for intros with unresolved chords.) Keep a particular ear on the lonesome slide guitar (played by Aaron Dessner, of the National) that leads directly into the verse at 0:22, with a slurred, two-note refrain. The refrain recurs throughout the song as a kind of bittersweet anchor, a classic-rock gesture boiled and condensed into an indie-rock leitmotif.
And then Van Etten enters and she hasn’t opened her mouth for more than five seconds and she’s nailing everything. Listen to how she sings the first line, “It was a close call,” dragging the word “call” in the subtlest way, not through different notes as much as through different shapes. And then, in the next line, the way the melody jerks unexpectedly upward and forward twice in the phrase “back of the room” is another “wow” moment disguised in nonchalance. Likewise the casual, nearly haphazard (but not really) harmonies that play out in the next line (beginning at 0:37), in and around our friend the guitar refrain, and how they—the harmonies, and the guitar refrain—lead us somehow into a sort of non-chorus chorus of surprising (but not really) intensity. With barely a moment to breathe we have been taken into a sizzling, guitar-driven drama, a kind of “Layla” for the smartphone set, the guitar riff shaved to its most essential two seconds, the sex more directly alluded to and yet, still, cleverly disguised—“You enjoy sucking on dreams,” the song’s narrator snarls, with a bit of a hesitation before the word “dreams”; she shortly thereafter finishes the line “You would take me” with the word “seriously,” also after a meaningful delay. Soon the upward-gliding guitar refrain has found a new home one octave further up, where it’s more of a wail, but still hasn’t found what it’s looking for. But I have found one of my favorite MP3s of the year.
“Serpents” is from Van Etten’s forthcoming album Tramp, her third, which will arrive in February. Note that Van Etten is backed here by some serious talent, including another Dessner (Bryce) on guitar, Matt Barrick (The Walkmen) on drums, and Wye Oak’s mighty Jenn Wasner on vocals. The album will be her first for the estimable indie label Jagjaguwar Records; MP3 via Jagjaguwar.