On the opening song of Are We There, the fourth album from Sharon Van Etten, she sings “I can’t wait til we’re afraid of nothing.” She then spends the remainder of the album suggesting that she might be waiting for that day for a long time, while paradoxically displaying the fearlessness that has elevated her into the absolute top bracket of American singer-songwriters.
Are We There is an album all about fear, vulnerability, the search for peace, and the impossibility of understanding love, but it possesses a level of intimacy, not to mention accomplishment, that makes this the greatest album of her career so far, even better than the superb Tramp. If that album was Sharon Van Etten’s breakthrough, this is the one that establishes how much more confident she has become in herself as an artist.
The opening trio of songs is devastating, beginning with “Afraid Of Nothing.” That song begins at a pitch that most artists would build to for a mid-album show stopper, but it turns out that Van Etten is just getting started. “Taking Chances” is another slow-burner that builds in intensity from its relatively laid back opening, and it is the closest thing on the album to the rockier sound of “Serpents.”
“Your Love Is Killing Me” is on a different level. Six minutes of almost unbearable emotional intensity, the song is the pinnacle of Sharon Van Etten’s career so far. Lyrically it’s painful to listen to, as she sings of a wish to “break my legs so I can’t run to you.” Much of the music over the last couple of albums was apparently inspired by a particularly toxic relationship, and listening to this song one can only be happy that she is apparently free of it now. This feels like a cathartic exorcism of real power.
Van Etten’s voice is breathtaking in its control at times. She is someone who absolutely trusts in the power of the songs and uses her voice to serve them rather than resorting to overwrought balladry or pointless histrionics. In the mid-album double of “I Love You But I’m Lost” and “You Know Me Well,” she reaches deep within herself, but embellishes the vocals with only the subtlest of harmonies to add depth.
The album’s production (courtesy of Van Etten herself) only accentuates just how personal a work this is and highlights her impeccable judgment when it comes to exactly what to leave out and what to include. Despite the purity of emotion on these eleven songs, she never allows her vision to spill over into indulgence.
There is a recognition here of a masochistic nature and a deep self-awareness. “I’m a sinner, I have sinned,” Van Etten sings on “Our Love,” just one of many examples of the kind of self-punishment that pervades the record. But the album ends with the sweet release of laughter at the end of “Every Time The Sun Comes Up.” That song is one of necessary levity and a sign that whatever pain she has lived through, things are certainly looking up for Sharon Van Etten now.
As an artist, that is undoubtedly the case. Van Etten may be the most compelling American songwriter since Elliott Smith, and she shares his remarkable generosity. Both artists’ songs speak to the broken lover and lonely soul in all of us and aim to convince us that there is light at the end of even the darkest tunnel. Few people can reach so many listeners on such a level, and that is why Sharon Van Etten needs to be celebrated right now, at the height of her powers.
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