In a letter Sharon Van Etten drafted to accompany pre-orders of her latest album, Are We There, she describes the record as “very much me, being strong, being weak, being open – being myself.” Of course, the Brooklyn-based songwriter has never seemed shy when sharing intimate feelings with her listeners. In fact, that emotional directness is, at least partially, what has separated Van Etten from other songwriters. She is the antithesis of detached. Her ability to convincingly convey emotional honesty is almost uncanny.
Are We There is Van Etten’s most emotionally vivid, disarmingly vulnerable, and fully realized album to date. Not coincidentally, it’s also the first album that she produced herself (with the help of Stewart Lerman). Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of the album, is how effortlessly Van Etten is able to achieve resonance in her melodies, harmonies, arrangements, and lyrics.
Over the course of the album Van Etten plays both the victim (“Your Love Is Killing Me”) and the villain (“I Love You But I’m Lost), but, more often than not, it’s not that black and white. As is often true in our own lives, Van Etten’s stories are emotionally complex.
The same could be said for the arrangements and compositions on the album. Quite often the tracks build with a brooding intensity. For example, the single “Taking Chances” opens with a shadowy, skulking bassline and a sparse, ringing ambiance. The beat is tight and tense. One by one, new instruments are introduced as the tune evolves in complexity and Van Etten’s bright croon glides into the frame both cryptic and expressive, “Even I’ve taken my chances on you / and I know in the dark / on the way out / it’s even in old songs.”
At the end of her letter to the listener, Van Etten concludes that the album conveys, “my struggle, our struggle, the general struggle of being true to yourself and then the world, finding a balance between work and having a relationship, being a good lover and friend, taking people as they are, with their own weaknesses and strengths and doing all you can, but also giving yourself the time to know yourself and be well. Even in your own weakness…”
The ability to do just that has always been, for me, the most defining characteristic of her music. Nonetheless, Are We There is Van Etten’s most elegant and rewarding presentation of that idea yet.
We’re selecting this as our Musical Pairing for the cocktail recipe Kasey is sharing today for a Merry Mary (a unique take on the ubiquitous Bloody Mary). After all, Van Etten’s emotional honesty simply demands a strong drink. You can buy Are We There on limited edition colored vinyl from Insound.