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Posted on June 3rd, 2014 (9:00 am) by Nick Manai

Take another look at the cover to Sharon Van Etten’s fourth LP Are We There. It isn’t just a woman sticking her head out of a car, but rather (astonishingly) a woman sticking her head out of a car that she is also driving. There a few select emotions that could drive a person to this moment. On Are We There, like all of Van Etten’s work to date, it is the feeling of regret, sadness, heartbreak that is so paralyzing, so encompassing you might do anything to feel the sun and the air from a different perspective. Her music has never been the representation of the moment shown on the cover here. It has, and continues to be, in an even more agonizingly powerful and personal way on Are We There, the moment just before it. When you grip the steering wheel with all of your might, strain through your own tears to see the path you are on, but ultimately begin to come up with new ways to read the world, yourself and the person sitting next to that allow you to breathe, smile and at least start thinking about doing something to change your perspective. For all of the guilt, dread and self-loathing flowing through her lyrics, sticking your head out of the window while you drive is not a death wish for Van Etten, it is the first step towards grasping your new life.

Are We There is the first record Van Etten has had a hand in producing and because it reveals itself as such a giant leap forward in musical virtuosity, and comes after her work with Aaron Dressner of The National, it is easy to read this record as her most personal. She had always been a powerful songwriter with the ability to stun, even the most hardened listeners with her frank desperation, but finally her musical production has caught up with her lyrics, balancing the rhythms of her pleas over the course these eleven songs and never allowing the record to feel claustrophobic or lose its momentum as had happened in small measure on her previous records.

“Afraid of Nothing” tangles a looping piano around a spider web of a guitar jangle, letting Van Etten’s unique voice offer one of her most engaging pleas come across not only imploringly, but also tunefully. “I can’t wait / Til we’re afraid / Of nothing,” she slurs, not from drunkenness but from the exhaustion of her hopes. As the strings build and she reiterates her wish to hide from nothing, you can almost believe the dream with her so strong is the demand.

“I Know” and “I Love You but I’m Lost” showcase Van Etten’s unique penchant for austere balladry. Try to find a singer-songwriter that can write songs this intense, this slowly paced, yet leave you humming along to the refrains. “I love you but I’m lost / Between the pain and cost / I hold myself alive,” she sings on the latter with dumbfounding humanity. Her voice is rich and throughout her work she employs a unique trick where she will soften her consonants down to wet toilet paper as though she were losing the will to speak right before your ears.

Are We There is also unique for its experimentation. Van Etten twists “Taking Chances” and “Our Love” on muted disco synths that never sound wild, yet lend some R&B groove to her vocals that may have always been there but never seemed so immediate. The hug of the synths is so tight to her own vocal tempo it seems she has been dappling in these effects in years, when surprisingly her last record Tramp was baroque to a fault.

The centerpiece of the album, and maybe Van Etten’s career so far, is the six-minute assault of “You’re Love is Killing Me.” The opening drums, muffled as though under the ground, warn of the coming attack. Musically it could almost be post-punk and signal the coming of a Swans or early Nick Cave song slowed down to a crawl. Lyrically the verses reflect a very similar, yet at the same time worlds’ apart, classic from Lucinda Williams. “I changed the locks on my front door / So you can’t see me anymore,” Williams once sang. On “Your Love is Killing Me,” Van Etten ups the ante, “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 you.” Unlike “Changed the Locks,” “You’re Love is Killing Me” is not a song about learning how to live without someone, it is about trying to break yourself apart from that person when you know they are no good, but are sticking around for the pain anyway and no one writes them like Van Etten.

The album closes with “Every Time the Sun Comes Up,” which besides being a beautiful indie hymn, it holds two keys to understanding Van Etten’s career. It has what might end up being one of the most talked about lines of 2014, when she deadpans, “I washed your dishes / but I shit in your bathroom,” a line Van Etten says was originally an inside joke with her band. Then at the very end we hear her giggling herself silly after trying the vocals to “Nothing Will Change.” Both encapsulate the rawness that pervades this album, but also open up those personal flourishes that prevent adjectives like trite from holding any water concerning these songs.

Track List:

  1. Afraid of Nothing
  2. Taking Chances
  3. Your Love Is Killing Me
  4. Our Love
  5. Tarifa
  6. I Love You But I'm Lost
  7. You Know Me Well
  8. Break Me
  9. Nothing Will Change
  10. I Know
  11. Every Time the Sun Comes Up
Purchase at: Amazon | eMusic

Our Rating

84 / 100
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