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Album Review: Sharon Van Etten - Are We There

By Cameron McBroom-Fitterer (MC Broom) posted Jun 08, 2014 at 01:47 PM

Cameron McBroom takes a look at Are We There, the latest from singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten.

Road trips can be listless things. While they might begin and end with enthusiasm, somewhere in the middle they often grow monotonous. If the title of her latest album, Are We There, is any indication, Sharon Van Etten is well aware of the feeling. Are We There is a record about moving towards a destination only to find that it remains distant, however, at least musically, Van Etten is anything but weary. Accompanying her weighty lyricism with incredibly fluent compositions, she has crafted an album that stands alongside Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel... and Sufjan Stevens’ The Age of Adz as one of the best singer-songwriter recordings in recent memory.

Are We There finds Van Etten both expanding and varying her musical palette. Her last record, 2012’s Tramp, largely stayed true to the guitar-driven sound of its two predecessors. “Leonard” is one of the few tracks that contains shreds of Are We There’s evolutions, but even that song would seem out of place on this album. Van Etten’s vocals have remained as hauntingly beautiful as ever, embracing spacious harmonies that her fans will find familiar. Yet there is something strange, engrossing, and different about the music that supports the singer’s voice this time around.

“Tarifa” showcases this progression. The song makes great use of slowly crescendoing woodwinds, turning a standard indie rock ballad into something more colorful. Other tracks feature keyboards, synths, organs, and drum machines, all of which help to push Van Etten further from her guitar and piano roots than ever before. Are We There is undoubtedly more orchestral than its predecessors, but this wouldn’t be a strength without excellent production (handled solely by Van Etten for the first time in her career) and mixing. The technical work allows “Tarifa” to build with ease, without the need of sharp changes and distractions. Van Etten’s voice is always at the center, but the music isn’t reduced to mindless window dressing. It is able to remain interesting and exciting. The album sounds simply enveloping: everything hits at once, but each voice and instrument falls into its own niche.

On Are We There, rhythm and momentum are king. Nearly every song is able to lock into a uniquely restless groove, propelling Van Etten’s crawling vocals like a wave. On softer piano ballads like opener “Afraid of Nothing,” and “I Love You But I’m Lost,” the percussion is precise and discerning in its ebbs and flows, keeping the songs from becoming stagnant while bolstering their emotional highs. “Every Time the Sun Comes Up” takes Hal Blaine’s “Be My Baby” beat to a slow, push-pull pace while Van Etten sneers about routine screw-ups. “Taking Chances” and “Our Love” stack acoustic drums on top of mechanized beats, creating a blend that is equally steady and warm.

When combined with Van Etten’s lyrics, the extent to which the record seems to sway and churn becomes something of a joke. She’s writing from what is, optimistically, a transitional place, but finds herself getting, moving, nowhere. Like a New Year’s resolution, she’s reflecting on past missteps, hoping to avoid them in the future. “I suppose that we were lost,” she sings, “let’s turn it into something we can change.” But as with most New Year’s resolutions, Van Etten can’t seem to shake the looming feeling that she’ll be stuck in the same mess further on down the road. “Nothing Will Change” spells out the doubt that plagues Are We There’s every word. Refrains of “maybe something will change” shift predictably into “nothing will change” with bleak beauty.

Sure, Are We There can be a bit of a downer, but like any great lyricist, Van Etten’s words are filled with catharsis. They’re deeply personal but they’re also relatable. At times they’re touching, at others they’re difficult to digest. Still, with supremely captivating musical accompaniment, sifting through dense problems becomes more inviting if not enjoyable. For Van Etten, destinations are fleeting, what really matters is enduring the ride.

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