[sic] Magazine

Sharon Van Etten – Are We There

Often an artist burns away quietly in their own corner while an ever-increasing circle grows around the flicker. As is the natural order of things the artist then, at some point, either implodes or reaches critical mass. Fanning the flames to the point of the fire breaking loose it was the runaway success of 2012’s Tramp that ensured Sharon Van Etten would enjoy the latter trajectory. The mainstream press now seems to be playing catch up, determined to lavish praise upon her when they may have overlooked her before. Who knows why they weren’t on board earlier – maybe it’s because she’s called Sharon? – but this attention is richly deserved for the self-produced Are We There is the latest in a strong run of four LPs and she truly is one of the finest singer-songwriters around … it’s just that at times here it feels like she’s sitting on something even better.

Tramp famously benefitted from a supporting cast that included Aaron Dessner, Zach Condon and Jenn Wasner and even though this time around she welcomes Mackenzie Scott, Jonathan Meiburg, Jana Hunter and Peter Broderick on board Are We There is a much more personal record. It’s an album on which she exorcises her demons in public. It’s not awkward per se, but these are deeply abusive confessions, equal parts fascinating and repulsive. Most arresting is the imagery in the standout “Your Love Is Killing Me” in which Van Etten, her vocal set to quiver like Amber Webber or Katie Stelmanis, lets rip with “Break my legs so I can’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”. Accordingly the track’s martial drumming rains down like fists and its organ is suitably melancholy, but it’s the pure savagery of these words that seer their severity onto the listener. The seriousness of Van Etten’s subject matter is sometimes masked however, such as by the playful keyboard programme that belies that “From the bottom of a well / I’m reliving my own hell” during the wonderful “Our Love”. Getting all this off her chest is clearly affecting Van Etten too as her stunningly high-register voice here strangles in her throat as she tries to keep her emotions in check.

Perhaps as a mechanism to help her cope most tracks start stripped back and vulnerable before growing in instrumentation and stature. Only twice does she deviate from this successful formula and while it’s refreshing to hear her powerful vocal uncluttered and in splendid isolation against her piano it’s these moments that nag that she could be doing more with her melodies all the same. That said, there’s plenty to commend on Are We There nevertheless. Van Etten digs deep into horns for the rousing “Tarifa”, for example, and the woodwind in “Nothing Will Change” offers a sympathetic ear to her skittering tale of woe. The deep bass and percussion-driven beat of “Taking Chances” swell pleasingly into a svelte and sombre master-class too. On solid album closer “Every Time The Sun Comes Up” Van Etten sings that “People say I’m a one-hit wonder”. These people – along with the mainstream press – need their ears cleaning out or simply just to listen to more Sharon Van Etten.

Best tracks: “Our Love” and “Your Love Is Killing Me”.

~Are We There is released May 26th 2014 via Jagjaguwar.~

[sic] review – Tramp