The story of Sharen Van Etten is not a new one, but important for better understanding from where she finds the fuel for her intimate narratives. Hailing from New Jersey, she moved to Tennessee to pursue studies in sound recording. There, she dropped out and started an unhealthy, turbulent relationship with a controlling musician who dismissed her attempts at songwriting, forcing her to play her music in secret for a long period of time. Eventually she got out of the relationship, moved back to her parent and documented these experiences into naked, confessional and brutally honest songs, desperately trying to make a sense of it all. It all ended up on her captivating 2009 debut album Because I Love You. Over the years since, she continued to stay close to these agonizing, disarmingly open themes, but moved way past its sparse, acoustic nature. Epic saw Van Etten assembling a full band and create a fleshier rock sound that gathered attention from Justin Vernon – who used to cover “Love More” on stage – and The National’s Aaron Dessner who eventually ended up producing Tramp, her wonderful 2012 breakthrough album.
On Are We There, her fourth album, the fuzzy pedal-steals of her former two records might be gone, but it’s the sensation of hearing Van Etten letting it all rip; the synthesis of all her previous efforts put into richer and livelier context. Notably, Van Etten herself produced the album with the assistance of Steward Lerman (Anthony and the Johnsons, Elvis Costello, David Byrne) and the result is much cleaner and unclouded, with a sense of live quality attached. And everything is carefully engineered not to distract Van Etten from her most glaring trait, which always been her raspy and intimate voice; often raw and with the sensation of hearing her sing directly at you. But she arrives at a whole new level of clarity and force on here. She can sound unbelievably forceful and intense when she wants to, and then there is that vulnerable side of her voice that is equally breathtaking.
For me, music and ambiance always played a more important role than lyrics, but then you have artists like Van Etten whose words are impossible to ignore. Whether it’s the hilarious, badass lines of “Every Time the Sun Comes Up”; “People say I’m a one hit wonder / but what happens when I have two / I washed your dishes / but I shit in your bathroom”, or the gut-wrenching, violent imagery of “Your Love is Killing Me”; “Break my leg so I can’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”, Van Etten delivers it with such force that her words jumps right at me. The latter is a particularly accurate capture of a horrific break-up, on where she concludes; “You tell me that you like it, when I let you walk over me”, which might not sound much on paper, but cuts deep as a spine-chilling reminder of her past experiences with abusive relationships.
As a lyricist, Van Etten has an almost astonishing ability to put brutally accurate words on the most difficult and awkward moments of a relationship. It feels as if she’s in the smack middle of everything she’s singing about, with a self-therapeutic view that questions her own role and fault in it all. That it can be uncomfortably honest sometimes – like snooping through her private diary – just makes it all the more vivid and real; “Chew me out when I’m stupid / you summon / forget about everyone else / fall away to somehow figure it out”, she sings on “Tarifa”. But “Tarifa”, like many of her darkest and most confessional songs, sound relatively vibrant – even cathartic – without ever conflicting with her wounded narratives. It also seems as she has learned a trick or two from working with Aaron Dressner, best demonstrated by the spacious “You Know Me Well”, a song that is simultaneously subtle and majestic, and has – like most songs on the album – instantly memorable melodies draped in rich melancholy.
Already on second or third listen, it gets clear that Are We There’s a displays some of Van Etten’s best songwriting. Especially “Your Love is Killing Me”, with its beautiful drone-y instrumentals that sprawls into a magnificent six minute epic rock ballad, is the moment when I put Van Ettens name next to some of the biggest and boldest singer/songwriters of our time. And then we have album opener “Afraid of Nothing”, on where a lovely string and piano driven setting frame her voice beautifully. When she sings “I can’t wait to be afraid of nothing”, it can well be the most simultaneously uplifting and naively melancholic moment she ever put on tape. Other highlights include “Taking Chances” and the aforementioned album closer “Every Time The Sun Comes Up”, two tracks I’ve elaborated extensively on. These are songs that hits right at you with force, but then there is “Break Me”, with its Beach House-esque guitars, and the fragile, peeled-back piano ballad of “I Know” that take their time before sneaking up on you.
Van Etten’s lyrical themes might not have changed much, and one might wonder for how long she can revisit these themes that inspired throughout her career. Yet on Are We There she achieves an even rawer and more articulate way of bringing her emotions to the surface. But perhaps the biggest revelation is the way she arrives at a much more confident and grander way of presenting these narratives. Are We There is a portrait of an artist coming into her own, which is saying something about an artist who already released two formative records. But on here, the melodies are stronger than ever, while being backed by her most beautifully orchestrated arrangements yet. So to answer your question Sharon; yes, you’re definitely there.