Album Review: Sharon Van Etten - Are We There

Album Reviews
Jacob Webb

There's a moment on "Every Time the Sun Comes Up", the closing track on Are We There, the fourth studio album by Sharon Van Etten, when the New Jersey songwriter nonchalantly declares "I wash your dishes, but I still shit in your bathroom". For obvious reasons, it's a line that immediately stands out, but it's also one of her most revealing lyrics in her songbook primarily because it's nothing more than a throwaway. Up until "Every Time the Sun Comes Up", Are We There (and Van Etten's catalog as a whole) is an emotionally heavy, often harrowing body of work. Van Etten's greatest strength has always been her lyrics; delivered by an increasingly powerful and emotive voice, are the kind of prose that can cut straight through a room or a listener's headphones without pause. That she would include an admittedly off-hand placeholder lyric – especially one so flippant – is surprising, to say the least. But "Every Time the Sun Comes Up" is an atypical Sharon Van Etten song. Van Etten delivers the titular chorus with a smirk, taking note of her perceived dourness and facetiously embracing it along the lines of Garbage’s "Only Happy When It Rains" or Lykke Li’s "Sadness is a Blessing". But beyond the self-awareness of “Every Time the Sun Comes Up”, there’s a courageous acknowledgement of Van Etten’s humanity: that she hurts, longs, pleads, and shits in bathrooms like anyone else. That she lays those things out with such direct, often brutal honesty, has always been the defining characteristic of Van Etten’s songwriting, and on Are We There, she’s more revealing than ever. A massive leap from an already first-class songwriter, Are We There is a stunning work of wounded beauty, an album that picks up the pieces of a fractured love only to boldly magnify them to a hyper-personal scale.

As opposed to some of her contemporaries and collaborators (Bon Iver and The National, in particular), Van Etten’s songwriting has often been far more direct, significantly less dependent on pretense and metaphor and emphasizing delivery. Initially, that was the primary responsibility of Van Etten’s voice, which, over the course of four albums, has grown richer and more powerful. The voice that once softly lamented in “Consolation Prize” (from 2009’s Because I Was In Love) or “Love More” (from 2010’s epic) is now a powerful, emotive roar, and coupled with her heaviest set of songs to date, it’s a more significant part of Van Etten’s music than ever. This is most evident on “Your Love Is Killing Me”, a six-minute howl that might be Van Etten’s finest recorded vocal performance. It’s a track so caustic that her bandmate and vocal partner Heather Woods Broderick told Van Etten “I'm so glad I don't have to sing on ‘Your Love Is Killing Me’ very much, because that song is so fucking intense”. And Broderick isn’t lying: the chorus lyrics – “Break my legs so I won’t walk to you/cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you/burn my skin so I can’t feel you/stab my eyes so I can’t see” – are nearly Fiona Apple-levels of harrowing honesty, and sung by Sharon’s soaring voice over militant snare patterns, it’s nothing short of devastating. It easily ranks among “One Day” and “In Line” as one Van Etten’s darkest tracks, and also one of her best.

Sonically, “Your Love Is Killing Me” is one of the more expansive tracks on Are We There, Van Etten’s most intricately arranged album to date by a considerable margin. On 2012’s Tramp, Van Etten and producer Aaron Dessner mostly eschewed the stark vocals-and-guitar arrangements of her first two albums for arrangements incorporating multiple musicians, and often, a full band. This extra instrumentation gave many of Van Etten’s songs more depth and more force; it’s hard to imagine “Give Out”, “Magic Chords”, or “Serpents” being as powerful as they are when played in a solo arrangement. (A posit arguably confirmed by the demo versions on the deluxe version of Tramp.) Working with producer Stuart Lerman and her then-regular touring band (which has since been expanded and partially reconfigured to accommodate the nature of new songs), Are We There continues Van Etten’s trend of expanding her arrangements with each record. (By design, Are We There is less guest-heavy than Tramp; although The War On Drugs’ Adam Granduciel, Torres, and Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg, there isn’t a guest spot nearly as prominent as Zach Condon’s [Beirut] vocal turn on Tramp’s “We Are Fine”.) In addition to the aforementioned “Your Love Is Killing Me”, her backing musicians help Van Etten realize her full potential on Are We There’s most immediate tracks.

As important as the instrumentation on Are We There is, Van Etten’s biggest strength has always been her lyrics, which remain some of indie rock’s most distinctive four albums in. When she chooses to desire to be “afraid of nothing” rather than “courageous” on the shimmering album-opener “Afraid of Nothing”, her syntax cleverly is the first sign that Are We There is not an album about loss, or even an album about searching for hope. Are We There is an album that, like all of Van Etten’s work, is a brutally honest album about the nature of relationships. What sets it apart from her past work is its depth, which can mostly explained by the circumstances of its creation. As every review or feature from the era (redundantly but necessarily) mentioned, Van Etten’s first two albums were primarily reflections on leaving a highly destructive, abusive relationship; the remainder of the songs on those albums, and many of Tramp’s songs, were written about a bartender who Van Etten was in an on-again off-again relationship with for close to a decade. Are We There was written during the final stages of that relationship, which, along with the intentionally obvious metaphor of its title, underline the non-linear, complicated nature of romance. On the Sade-esque “Our Love”, Van Etten coos “at the bottom of a well/I’m reliving my own hell/someone throws the ladder down/still don’t know what I have found” before answering herself with a soft, bittersweet of “it’s our love... it’s all love”. On “Taking Chances”, she admits that there’s nothing certain about the future of their relationship, but dives in regardless. Although written about a vacation Van Etten and her former lover took, “Tarifa” sounds anything but carefree; it sounds conflicted and hurt, but still willing to look back. “I Love You But I’m Lost” doesn’t need any explanation.

Are We There climaxes not with a swelling orchestra or a cutting vocal, but with “I Know”, the album’s most direct and only true solo track. Accompanied only by a piano, Van Etten sings as plaintively as she ever has, quickly admitting that she “cannot tell the poet eye apart from mine” anymore. Adding to the innate dichotomy of the track is the titular refrain (“I know, I know”), a lyric as vague as they come, but sung with a bittersweet weight that speaks volumes. Emotionally exhausted and alone at the piano, Van Etten seems, for the first time in her career, lost for words. That is, until, her final lyric – “All I ever wanted was you.” It’s a line that’s been used in countless songs, but no other words feel even remotely appropriate at such a moment. After outfitting her most emotionally resonant songs with her most progressive arrangements, Van Etten returns to where she began, alone in a room just trying to figure out how to express herself on record. The song essentially closes the emotional arc of the album, but Are We There isn’t a categorically melancholy album and Van Etten isn’t a perpetually lamenting songwriter, so it closes with “Only When The Sun Comes Up”. That song’s lightheartedness doesn’t negate the gravity of the preceding tracks, but it does allow Van Etten to get the last word in. Since the beginning of her career, Van Etten has been primarily framed as a confessional songwriter, whose black and white album covers and subject matter weigh too heavily on her for her to have any depth. But, like another artist who gets painted as singularly dour, she has a sense of humor about it. Van Etten knows that her songwriting is dark; she’s mentioned countless times in the press that it’s a necessarily cathartic exercise for her. But there’s more to her than that, and if that means she has to put in a lyric about taking a shit to dispel that reputation, then that’s what she’s going to do. Are We There is Van Etten’s most accomplished work to date and likely an album-of-the-year contender, primarily because her musical voice finally seems to have caught up to her artistic vision. Whatever traces of the timid songwriter she used to be are finally gone, and if she keeps on advancing at this pace, she won’t be able to be labeled as “Sharon Van Etten, had an abusive boyfriend”, “Sharon Van Etten, friends with The National”, or even “Sharon Van Etten, confessional female singer” anymore. She’s only Sharon Van Etten, songwriter and musician (and bathroom shitter) at the top of her game.

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