Sharon Van Etten
Are We There
27 May 2014 (Jagjaguwar Records)
By: Josh Hughes
I’m fairly certain the most common word on Sharon Van Etten’s bleak and brilliant “Are We There” is “you”. Every song on the album confronts the listener with Etten’s heartbroken, beautifully hoarse pleas that make it impossible to casually listen to. Throughout 11 songs, her suffering and contemplations on life sink deeper and deeper into the skin, and behind sparsely epic music, it’s hard to find a more emotionally draining and poetic album within the past years.
The opening song, “Afraid of Nothing”, is dastardly cinematic, and kicks off the album long theme of disconnect within modern love. It’s a surprisingly powerful sentiment, with her strong rasp cutting in between gorgeous strings and propelling piano to say “I can’t wait til we’re afraid of nothing”, changing by the end to “I need you to be afraid of nothing”. There’s immediately a fragility to the album that’s balanced with intensity and strength- and there’s moments on nearly every song where those feelings flip in a matter of ten seconds.
“Taking Chances”, the lead single, takes its cues from Beach House-esque drum machines, and bursts open with jolts of guitar each chorus that almost overcome her drawn out vocals. Her voice trancingly waves up and down and threatens to break, where on the middle highlight “Break Me”, channels a Florence Welsh type performance. But even with every vocal peak, nothing takes away from the direct encounter of her lyrics. It’s almost a crime to talk about an album this emotional without just admiring the words. The choruses keep building with desperate hope and linger on it until the very end, when it comes crashing down in the matter of a few words.
“I Love You But I’m Lost” summarizes hundreds of brokenhearted and confused songs into “I love you but I’m lost between the pain and the cost”. Elsewhere, on the musical centerpiece of the album, “Tarifa”, she pleas “Slow it was seven, I wish it was seven all night”. On every abrasive turn the album makes, Van Etten sums up complex and hard to deal with subjects with a single blow. It’s a tour de force for “less is more”. The second person narrative gets more uncomfortable with each song, while remaining just as alluring for the hope of an uplifting ending. We rarely get it, but there’s always such possibility in between the words that allows for contemplation long after the last chords are struck. It’s not as bleak as “Hospice” nor as abstract as “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea”- or even as epic as either of those albums, instead it falls somewhere in between.
At the dead center of “Are We There” is the unavoidable “Your Love Is Killing Me”, which is the most affecting six minutes Sharon Van Etten’s ever written. It sticks out immediately, and you can’t look away from it once you see it. There’s no obscured metaphors in her search for describing a painful love, just gut punches like “stab my eyes so I can’t see you” and “burn my skin so I can’t feel you”. The chorus repeats three times, with gorgeous stacking piano chords evoking something as epic and more powerful than Joshua Tree era U2. There’s nothing you can do to avoid the song, and it’s the epitome of the album’s abrasive forwardness. You simply can’t put it on in the background and enjoy a few measure every time it grabs your attention. It demands your full focus and attention for its entirety, which isn’t so difficult with such an accessible batch of songs. The last song, “Every Time The Sun Comes Up” is almost a parody of the earlier songs and their melancholy. But her words get more prominent with each verse until she spurts out “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.” It’s the final punchline in her infinite bag of one liners, and it comes off between humorous and angered. At the end of the singalong chorus, there’s an outtake of her singing while her headphones fall off, and there’s about ten seconds of laughter. It’s not such a bleak album that something like that is necessary to pull you back out of despair, but it’s a strangely perfect conclusion to her nostalgic, bittersweet meanderings on life and love.
Rating: Gotta Have It
Fav Tracks: “Afraid of Nothing”, “Your Love Is Killing Me”, “Every Time The Sun Comes Up”, “Tarifa”