REVIEW: Sharon Van Etten – ‘Are We There’

Sharon Van Etten Are We There

Artist: Sharon Van Etten
Album: Are We There
Genre: Folk Rock
Label: Jagjaguwar

Sharon Van Etten is a rarity among musicians. The New Jersey native will step onstage and squabble with her three-piece backing band, combining nervous jokes with a half-snort laugh that would probably get a kid bullied in middle school. She’s a bit clumsy, somewhat outspoken, and always innocently honest. It’s been five years since she began twirling around the music scene, cutting herself open again and again for her songs, yet despite the continual applause she’s gotten onstage and off, Etten has always remained very much herself.

Are We There is Etten’s fourth release and shows her coming in to her own as a songwriter. It’s pained, it’s sweeping, and it’s full of lost love’s universal truth. She isn’t singing about being heartbroken; she’s singing about being heartbroken again, about the pain we subject ourselves to by not raising our standards.

For the first time, Etten is laying down the music entirely by herself. Painfully personal narratives gain a new foothold this time around now that she’s looking to prove to herself that an album can represent a human without help from anyone else. Written and created entirely on her terms, Are We There shows Etten baring her independence all on her own, a step that wasn’t necessary but is keenly received as soon as it begins with “Afraid of Nothing.”

Her debut, 2009’s Because I Was In Love, was an effortlessly sung wallow in heartbreak the same way The Antlers’ Hospice dragged about. The seven-song Epic followed it up with the modest maturity of “Love Move,” a harmonium-filled sigh comparable to a dog’s tired breathing while it sleeps in winter. But 2012’s near-perfect Tramp placed Etten on the map for the few who weren’t already standing beside her, letting her sing the words their hearts had been choking back as well. Produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner and featuring guest spots from Beirut’s Zach Condon and Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, Tramp was a star-studded release that pushed her towards rough, hostile take “Serpants” and the finely-spun sailboat peck “We Are Fine.” It was a professional push that showed she was a must-know, but the addition of so many other beloved musicians masked her talent.

For one thing, Are We There grows on you differently. With Tramp, it was all about the highs and lows. Are We There watches Etten prowl a smooth path and forces her to reconcile by herself. She may be picking herself back up for the fourth time, but she’s doing so with an undeniably striking, nimble confidence.

On record, she comes across more serious, her effortlessly endearing self often hidden for the sake of finely sliced music, but her whole personality is there if you look hard enough. “I love you but I’m not taking shots,” she sings on “I Love You But I’m Lost,” the first of several toying double entendres. She’s playful despite the tears, wielding a knife for revenge but never following through on the actual strike. Peek inside the album’s pamphlet and note Etten’s list of recommended listening—Torres, Glass Candy, William Tyler, Anna Calvi—a gift she includes on every album. A musician this inclined to give more to her listeners than just the music is rare, but Etten makes it seem natural. She’s got a big heart, and there’s too much going on inside it to keep to herself.

When strung to a flagpole for guidance instead of gloating, independence such as hers is breathtaking. It’s no surprise Are We There hits like a blow to the ribs, just beneath the heart, leaving you enough time to feel it pump with the vivid emotions tied to your memories that keeps them from floating away. Arguably the record’s best track, “Your Love Is Killing Me,” has her keeling in pain, calling out, “Break my legs so I won’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.” With each play, it begins to stick itself to us until we question how it is we ever got by without a record like this. Meanwhile, Etten’s off coming up with new songs and dweeby jokes, reminding us that those who are the most pure, the most genuine, are the ones who win battles with emotions that hold us back in order to pursue the person they strive to be.

SCORE: 8.6/10
Review written by: Nina Corcoran (follow her on Twitter)

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