Two years of intermittent lockdowns may have been a necessary measure against COVID-19, but they also provided incubation chambers for doubt and fear. The joy of IRL connection, we learned, can rarely be recreated through doom-scrolling and Wordle. It’s a revelation that indie-rock polymath Sharon Van Etten channels on her evocative sixth album: “This is the most specific time I’ve made a record,” she told NME in a recent cover story, “where it’s a collective trauma we’re experiencing.”
- READ MORE: On the cover – Sharon Van Etten: “I have to be hopeful. I’m a mother and I want to be brave for my son”
The pandemic arrived with impeccably bad timing for the musician, who had uprooted her life and moved to Los Angeles – she’d lived in New York for 15 years – when she found herself grounded. Instead of enjoying the City of Angels with her partner and young son, she began to peel back the layers of her life, confronting her demons and exploring her roles as an artist and mother. The uneven, synth-infused ‘We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong’ finds her staring hard in the mirror, tracing the battle scars with an unflinching gaze.
Not wanting to colour the listener’s experience, she decided against appetite-whetting pre-release singles, a move that contributes to the sense of unfamiliarity throughout the 10 tracks, which can be lyrically vague. Opener ‘Darkness Fades’ begins as an obscure acoustic ditty (“I’m hearing stars fall / Keeping what at bay?”), before unravelling into a jet-black ballad about feeling stuck in stasis within four walls: “I’m looking at our grass / I’m struggling for words…”
What follows is similarly grand and gothic, as Van Etten crafts a whirling cacophony that shifts between bassy, grindhouse noir-pop (‘Headspace’), Radiohead-lite starkness (‘Darkish’) and spooky drivetime that would make Jeremy Clarkson cry (‘I’ll Try’). The booming production, which she created with Daniel Knowles of Nottingham rockers Amusement Parks On Fire, is a little grandiose – the tracklist can blur together, as when the yearning ‘Anything’ bleeds into the glassy ‘Born’ – but there’s no denying the passion it conveys.
Standout ‘Mistakes’ is Van Etten at her best, its thumping chorus ideal for banishing lockdown-induced rumination on your regrets: “Every time I make a mistake / Turns out it’s great”. Around a quarter of the album reaches these heights – see the swirling coda of ‘Home To Me’, on which she tackles the conflict between creativity and parenthood. Although it lacks the immediacy of 2018’s hookier ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’, this unyielding record is, at times, a powerful reckoning with the age of uncertainty.
Release date: May 6
Record label: Jagjaguwar