Review: Sharon Van Etten, Are We There

sharon van etten are we there
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opinion by BRENDAN FRANK

On the profoundly sad Are We There, Sharon Van Etten plunges into the shadowy inner workings of her psyche without recourse. Her 2012 breakthrough Tramp is practically understated by comparison, the heartrending sentimentality of that record crumpling underneath outright agony. A poignant tour-de-force, the message of Are We There is urgent, its delivery selfless. Expressive in a manner that’s entirely singular, these eleven tracks stand alongside the likes of Benji, The Idler Wheel, and Hospice as one of the most affecting, unfiltered musical works of the past several years.

In many ways, Tramp was the arrival of a talent that was promised. Are We There feels like the actualization of that talent, with Van Etten lifting the bell jar on the wisdom, grace and precipitous depth that she has accrued along the way. She pours herself into Are We There, often sounding spent and exhausted by a song’s end.

While Are We There can be taxing at points, by its end, you’ll be overcome by the feeling that you’ve shared in something profound. Versing in the most intimate of details, this could be reductively classified as a break-up album. But the manner in which it delves into not just the heartache, but also the little joys, the fuck-ups and the reformative power of memory elevates it into something else entirely. Eventually, the darkness gives way to renewal and cautious optimism, a catharsis of tremendous power and deftly crafted scope.

At its heart, Are We There is about sacrifice, and what you really stand to lose when you go after what you truly want. Taken at face value, the title implies frustration, but it is a good deal greyer than that. This implied sense of restlessness quickly becomes desperation the opening track, when the line “I can’t wait til we’re afraid of nothing” becomes “I need you to be afraid of nothing”.

After the single-friendly “Taking Chances”, “Your Love Is Killing Me” drags this concept to the extreme. In order to sever ties completely with some unnamed person, Van Etten declares she must break her legs, cut up her tongue and gouge out her eyes, before asking them to steal her soul so she can be one with them. She curls her voice around the words, conveying their necessity while dampening their brutality.

By the quarter mark, it becomes evident that Van Etten has picked up a few tricks from Aaron Dessner, who produced Tramp. The brooding majesty of the National is creeping further into her music. These arrangements are rich and expansive, each instrument getting its chance to stretch and flex without taking anything away from the album’s focal point: the singing.

As on “Your Love Is Killing Me”, Van Etten’s voice is the first mover for the majority of these tracks. Powerful, but delicate when it needs to be, she’s never sounded more confident or in control. These are some of the most devastating melodies you’ll hear all year. Every note wrung from standout “You Know Me Well” is stunning, as is the prose (“When it all comes out/We’re as empty as a brick house that we built without the sides”). Her best performance on the album is found on “I Know”, a moving ballad that’s skin and bones, emotionally and musically.

But as remarkable as Van Etten’s vocal work often is, it has always been a strength of hers; the real development comes in her use of dynamics. Nearly every idea here starts small, and then twists, contorts and expands before snapping back into its original shape. On “Tarifa”, each segment gradually becomes tenser and more chaotic; only when it reverts to its restrained, gospel-imbued format do you realize how white-knuckled and acerbic it has become.

The transition to “I Love You But I’m Lost” conveys the incredibly broad emotional range on Are We There. Here, the numb rage decomposes into grief, and Van Etten’s self-analysis and power of observation are relentless. “I’m lost between the pain and cost,” she gasps. No matter how unhealthy your current circumstances are, it can be hard to tell if forcing yourself out of inertia is more terrifying than staying put, and Van Etten captures the essence of that dichotomy with seven words.

This contradiction adds new shades of nuance to Are We There with each listen. In their shared attempts to rebuild something out of the wreckage, every song is remarkable for different reasons. Closer “Every Time The Sun Comes Up” undeniably feels like the turning of a page. That the record ends with a goofy moment during the recording sessions is telling. For all it has to say about love and the healing process, Are We There is itself very much a part of that process. Van Etten is emerging on the other side bruised and battered, but with her wounds sewn up, eager to carry on. 

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