Album Review: Sharon Van Etten—”Are We There”

Sharon Van Etten

By James Li

In the masterful opening sequence of Agnès Varda’s film Cléo from 5 to 7, the titular protagonist comes to a fortune teller’s den for a tarot reading. The fortune teller can tell that the Cléo is an artistic spirit, passionate about music, whose career is nurtured by a kindly man. Among the last cards Cléo draws are the Hanged Man and Death — cards that represent suffering, but also change. Brooklyn singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten happens to be a fan of Varda. For the music video for “Taking Chances” off Van Etten’s latest album, Are We There, director Michael Palmeri draws heavily from the tarot reading scene in Cléo from 5 to 7 for inspiration, and he couldn’t have chosen a more fitting film.

Like Cléo, Sharon Van Etten is a talented musician, and change and suffering are at the heart of her personal and artistic lives. But her success happened despite, rather than because of, a man. Van Etten once lived with a college boyfriend who belittled her music to the point where he had smashed her guitars, and she would often sneak off to play open mic nights. After spending five years in this toxic relationship, Van Etten severed ties and moved back in with her parents before moving to Brooklyn to pursue music full-time. Her first two albums, Because I Was in Love and epic are spartan folk rock efforts with a country twang. Her third, Tramp, was produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner and leans on the rockier end of the folk rock spectrum, but Are We There strays even further from Van Etten’s folk roots. The album opens with “Afraid of Nothing,” where Van Etten is accompanied by the swirl of a piano and strings. Van Etten takes cues from dream pop and soul on some tracks, such as the synth-laced groove of “Taking Chances” or the gorgeous jazz ballad “Tarifa.”

Are We There (Album Artwork)

Album art for Are We There

The word “confessional” is often used to describe Van Etten’s approach to songwriting. It’s true that she explores intimate topics in her music, but that’s not what makes it compelling. It’s her incisive lyricism that sets her apart from her peers. Few singer-songwriters cut deep with as few words as Van Etten. Many of the songs on her previous albums deal with post-breakup fallout, but if some of Van Ettten’s song titles weren’t already clear (“I Love You But I’m Lost”, “Your Love is Killing Me”), Are We There suggests that relationships themselves are just as complicated. “Your Love is Killing Me” is one of the best and most devastating. Over an organ and a funereal drum beat, Van Etten resolves to tear herself away: “Burn my skin so I can’t feel you / stab my eyes so I can’t see / that you like it when I let you walk over me.” Van Etten turns the tables on “You Know Me Well” with one of the most searing choruses on the album: “You know me well / you show me hell when I’m looking / and here you are, lookin’.”

However, Van Etten avoids wallowing in depression in her lyrics. The artist has a melancholic streak but she sings with a resolve that maybe things will become better. The album opens with “Afraid of Nothing,” where she declares that she “can’t wait ‘til we hide from nothing.” The sun-kissed “Tarifa” is as warm as the Spanish coastal town it’s named for, and Van Etten seems lost in the moment: “Can’t remember / I can’t recall / no, I can’t remember anything at all.” Although Are We There is steeped in melancholia, Van Etten closes the album with some much-needed levity on “Every Time the Sun Comes Up,” where she’s playfully self-effacing (“People say I’m a one-hit wonder / but what happens when I have two?”) and candid (“I washed your dishes / but I shit in your bathroom”) over languid jangly guitars and a shuffling “Be My Baby” drum beat, before ending in studio outtake laughter.

Van Etten’s voice is her best asset, strong enough to bear the weight of her words. Her voice can reach high, but usually stays grounded in a low, husky timbre. Comparisons to Cat Power might be apt, but so might comparisons to long-lost German singer Sibylle Baier or Van Etten’s Jagjaguwar labelmate, Angel Olsen. Although her last album, Tramp, features a constellation of indie rock collaborators (such as Julianna Barwick, Beirut’s Zach Condon, and Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner), Van Etten tries to showcase her own voice on Are We There. Bandmate Heather Woods Broderick contributes some gorgeous harmonies, such as on “Afraid of Nothing” and “Nothing Will Change,” but Van Etten also delivers many more raw vocal performances by herself, especially on “Your Love is Killing Me.”

The title Are We There is an open-ended, unpunctuated question. Van Etten has always been a musical vagrant — she titled her last album Tramp because she was homeless for two years, drifting between her tour van and friends’ apartments. Are We There sounds like an album by an artist who has started to hit her stride, with Van Etten delivering some of her most urgent vocal performances and bruising lyrics yet. Stylistically, there’s not much to separate Van Etten from the countless confessional coffee shop singer-songwriters out there. Although she embraces more diverse instrumentation on this album, Van Etten is emphatically not an innovative or idiosyncratic artist. But she is very good, perhaps one of the best, at what she does, and her latest album is her at her best so far. So are we there? I’m not sure whether Van Etten will settle into the musical niche she’s carved, or whether she’ll explore new sounds next. Either way, Are We There is a deeply affecting album for anyone who likes their music to hit too close to home. (Jagjaguwar)

Listen: “Taking Chances”

2 Responses to “Album Review: Sharon Van Etten—”Are We There””
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  1. […] Album Review: “Are We There” by Sharon Van Etten […]

  2. […] the best albums of the year, or at least one of the most emotionally devastating, in Demo’s unbiased editorial opinion. Van Etten recently shared the video for album highlight “Your Love Is Killing Me,” […]

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