The New Jersey singer tells the story of a failing love affair with poignancy and wry humour
Sharon Van Etten’s fourth album represents a change in tack for the New Jersey singer. Her first three albums, starting with 2009’s ‘Because I Was In Love’, have shown off her gift for exploring personal struggles in a revelatory way, documenting vulnerable moments with an engrossing intimacy. To date, her stories have been told in hindsight, pulling the listener in as an imaginary confidante. This time, however, ‘Are We There’ draws from the present, recounting an on-again-off-again relationship that’s nearing its end.
Addressing her ex-partner directly throughout the album, Van Etten poses difficult questions and often recalls specific memories. With lines like “Drive myself crazy with mistakes/You know I’m better every day/Tell me there’s something I can change” on ‘I Love You But I’m Lost’, these songs feel like a concerted effort to resolve a turbulent time in her life. The relationship she’s singing about actually ended not long after the album’s completion.
As well as playing many of the instruments herself, ‘Are We There’ finds the 33-year-old taking control as producer for the first time. Doing so has enabled her to turn a diverse set of songs into a well-paced, cohesive portrait of a nine-year affair. The opening track, ‘Afraid Of Nothing’, carries a note of now-or-never; as Van Etten sings “We’ve known each other for a long time/I need you to be afraid of nothing”, it’s plain that there’s affection there, but it’s under strain.
Eight songs later, on ‘Nothing Will Change’, any remaining optimism seems to have eroded, as the initial refrain of “Maybe something will change” eventually becomes “Nothing will change”. By the penultimate song ‘I Know’, which begins “Now I turn into a lover on the side/I cannot tell the poet eye apart from mine”, there’s more than a hint of resignation.
‘Are We There’ is the sound of two people being pulled apart by conflicting priorities. But rather than wallow in regret and longing, Van Etten’s treatment of the issue runs much deeper; it captures perfectly the little lies we tell ourselves in troubled circumstances and the lack of perspective we wrestle with in times of uncertainty.
You can see it charted in the song titles, which veer from the need for fearlessness in ‘Afraid Of Nothing’ and ‘Taking Chances’ to the despair of ‘Your Love Is Killing Me’ and ‘I Love You But I’m Lost’, the latter’s lyrics hoping for “a love that bears no cross”.
By favouring piano and organ over the guitar, ‘Are We There’ feels less jagged and more finessed than its intricately layered predecessor, 2012’s ‘Tramp’. The songs are slower and spacious enough to keep their clarity intact. Van Etten knows exactly what each scene requires as, throughout the album, the arrangements expand and contract with a fitting ebb-and-flow.
Both ‘Break Me’ and ‘Tarifa’ float along with the buoyancy of vintage soul, recalling the misleadingly upbeat dynamic of ‘Tracks of My Tears’ by The Miracles or The Temptations’ ‘Just My Imagination’. ‘I Love You But I’m Lost’ and ‘I Know’, on the other hand, rely on just one or two instruments to get their point across.
Although there is the occasional overwrought lyric (such as “Stab my eyes so I can’t see” on ’Your Love Is Killing Me’), and nothing ground-breaking here in terms of song structure or instrumentation, the emotion in the delivery makes up for it. Van Etten tackles heartache with refreshing sharpness, distilling complex sentiments into something beautifully simple.