“Up the whole night…can’t stop thinking about peace and war,” Sharon Van Etten sings in the song “Anything”, from her latest album, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong. The line can be seen as a fitting summary of this dense, luminous, ruminative new album. Everyone and their brother seem to be cranking out “pandemic albums,” whether it’s the result of being forced to hole up in a home studio or simply reflecting on how COVID has irrevocably changed lives. For Van Etten, her latest album is a little bit of both, with thrilling, transcendent results.
Van Etten moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in September 2019 with her partner and their two-year-old son and was planning to get married and live something of an everyday life when COVID changed everything. The pandemic, coupled with the increase of modern-day horrors like climate change and racial injustice, made parenthood a scary challenge. Still, it also inspired her to translate this unease into some of the most beautiful music she’s ever released.
This type of album-length interconnectivity of the songs gives We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong a sense of almost calming focus, to the point that it’s easy to see it as something of a concept album about life, work, and parenthood. To that end, Van Etten chose not to pre-release any singles from the album, underscoring the cohesion. “I wanted to approach this release differently,” Van Etten explains in the album’s press materials, “to engage my fans in an intentional way, in an effort to present the album as a whole body of work”.
The layered dream-pop vibe that’s been the linchpin of so much of Van Etten’s earlier work is present right from the start. “Darkness Fades” starts the record with vocals and acoustic guitar before thundering drums and heavenly harmonies give the song an almost anthemic second half. But she has a knack for incorporating a variety of atmospheres and production techniques that give the album a welcome sense of variety, as “Home to Me” – the album’s second track – contains a compelling sparseness that the previous song took great pains to avoid. The bare-bones drum pattern and stark piano chords recall the primal feel of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s early Plastic Ono Band albums.
For every bit of multilayered dream-pop that’s present on We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong, there are also plenty of uplifting, pop-centric moments. “I’ll Try” is one of the album’s most pleasant surprises, a pure new-wave pop confection filled with booming, funky beats, understated keyboard flourishes, and a collection of memorable melodic hooks.
Meanwhile, “Headspace” has more of a noise-centered musical backdrop, as grumbling synths, distorted guitar squalls, and a robotic drum machine perfectly complement Van Etten’s insistent chorus: “Baby don’t turn your back to me.” Later in the album, “Mistakes” takes that noisy edge to a catchier place, recalling the grimy yet danceable punk/pop of MTV’s salad days.
But this is hardly an exercise in nostalgia. “Come Back” has a timeless, stately folk quality, marrying gentle acoustic guitars with Van Etten’s soaring voice, incorporating the close harmonies she’s known for. And on the album’s gorgeous closer, “Far Away”, Van Etten seems to cop a bit of inspiration from the ethereal discography of Cocteau Twins, and the lyrics seem to serve as a gentle lullaby to her child: “I’ll be here / Not only when you feel long lost.”
“These ten songs are designed to be listened to in order, at once,” Van Etten adds in the press release, “so that a much larger story of hope, loss, longing, and resilience can be told.” For everyone who complains that the art of the album is lost forever, Sharon Van Etten is bringing it back with a vengeance with these ten deeply felt songs.