[28 May 2014]
Of all the things I enjoyed about Sharon Van Etten’s last album, Tramp, I found myself most excited about what wasn’t there. Specifically, I was most taken with how impressive the album was without necessarily being her definitive statement. There was room to grow on Tramp and there were indications of the album wasn’t the culmination of her journey, but just another stop along the way. That’s not to say that Tramp was a bad album, just that it wasn’t the sort of career-defining triumph that would inevitably cast an inescapable shadow over Van Etten’s work from that point on. Are We There certainly doesn’t indicate that, as it finds Van Etten treating her previous albums as blueprints, tools with which she crafts a confident, assured album.
As her career has progressed, Van Etten has gradually added more and more to the arrangements of her songs. Both Tramp and its predecessor, Epic, paired her previously sparse compositions with fuller and fuller sounds, but Are We There is a musical leap ahead for Van Etten. The sparse, solo songs are nowhere to be found here (one glorious exception: the piano ballad “I Know”), and Van Etten’s songs here don’t have the fragility that her earlier work could present. Drum machines stutter to open the likes of “Taking Chances” and “Every Time the Sun Comes Up”, and the guitars on the LP find a healthy balance between alt-country twang and Cure-ish reverb.
That’s a far cry from the evocative emptiness of songs like “Give Out” or “Kevin’s”, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some of the outsized moments on Are We There just call for something a little more grandiose than one would typically expect from Van Etten. Fortunately, it works very well as producer Stewart Lerman is perfect fit for these songs, and his work makes the sweeping drama of “Your Love Is Killing Me” and “You Know Me Well” even more grandiose and effective than Aaron Dessner did on Van Etten’s previous album.
Of course, it helps quite a bit that Van Etten has really come into her own as a singer. She’s always has a good amount of range, but her vocal work here is among the best work she’s ever done. The soaring choruses of the masterful “Your Love Is Killing Me” need a powerful vocalist to make them work, and Van Etten delivers. Elsewhere, her voice recalls the best of Joni Mitchell—“I Know” could easily fit alongside some of the classics on Blue. However, one has to come back to the emotional tour de force that stands as the album’s emotional center, the aforementioned “Your Love Is Killing Me”. It’s a daring song from Van Etten, one that pushes her natural gifts as a singer/songwriter to their breaking point. The song shouldn’t work, but it ends up working so well that the rest of the album suffers slightly as a result. However, following greatness with something that’s merely very good isn’t really a crime.
Sharon Van Etten’s struggles with her self-confidence have been publicized greatly in the lead-up to Are We There’s release, but the album itself doesn’t really have an inkling of self-doubt. Indecision and despair may be her favorite subjects to write about, but musically, Van Etten has crafted an assured, resounding triumph. I’d say that Are We There is her best album, but given Van Etten’s track record, we can expect the next one to be even better.