I remember first hearing of Sharon Van Etten back when her previous album Tramp was released. In reading the press materials for the record, the mentions of The National and The Antlers immediately grabbed my attention–Aaron Dessner of the former produced the album, and she provided the haunting vocals on the latter’s “Thirteen” from Hospice. Add in the fact that she had a habit on stopping by the AV Club for their “Undercover” series, and I was sold. I picked up Tramp and was entranced by her unique voice, a sweet yet vulnerable timbre equipped with a slight countryish tinge. Songs like “Warsaw” and “Magic Chords” would stick in my head for days, but for many “Serpents” was the song that got people’s attention (it helped that it was used for a promotion for “The Walking Dead”, but hey, who am I to knock where people first hear great music?)
Are We There turns out to be an excellent showcase for the musical growth of Van Etten. Before, most songs would reveal themselves at the beginning and consist of mainly basic elements; you would hear the verse and the chorus, usually using the same instruments, and have a good idea for how the rest of the song goes. On Are We There, Van Etten instead opts for the “slow-reveal” approach, gradually building songs from the ground-up, slowly adding layers and building to thrilling climaxes. Often these climaxes are mirrored by a cathartic release as Van Etten shares especially painful and confessional lyrics. The ending of “Your Love Is Killing Me” is an unforgettable example, as she expands on the chorus to reveal that “You love me as you torture me; you tell me that you like it” as the band swells around her.
Van Etten also branches out with different instrumentation, moving beyond more traditional folk/rock standards. Piano and guitar is still present, but are augmented by careful touches of strings and horns (as in the sublime “Tarifa”) or the occasional use of a drum machine or other programming (“Our Love” bears more than a passing resemblance to a Beach House song with the minimalist programming and soft female vocal). The single “Taking Chances” makes use of the latter, building on a programmed drum beat with mellow keyboard, with the guitar saved for accented hits during the chorus.
Still, the selling point remains Van Etten’s uniquely beautiful voice and her personal songwriting. The album is often dark, though there are moments of black humor that provide a bit of levity, as seen in the album closer “Every Time The Sun Comes Up”, where she stretches lines like “People say I’m a one-hit wonder, but what happens when I have two? I washed your dishes then I shit in your bathroom” out to great effect. Even so, the saddest and bitterest songs leave the greatest impression, with the effects of “Your Love Is Killing Me”, “I Know”, and “You Know Me Well” lasting long after the album is over. Are We There doesn’t have the same evenhanded flow as Tramp, but the peaks are often higher.
And you have to appreciate an artist that provides a list of “Recommended Listening”, and includes the likes of The War On Drugs, Suicide, Spiritualized, Kurt Vile, and The Men, among several others. Thanks Sharon, now I have additional homework to do.