Album of the week : Are We There - Sharon Van Etten

It was hard not to be completely enamoured with Sharon Van Etten’s 2012 breakthrough album, Tramp. Here was a singer who sang with a fiery sadness and unflinching honesty, using her haunting voice to exorcise her emotional demons, desperately trying to become a better person. Tramp was a devastating reflection on personal anguish and the failure connect to those you supposedly love. Details of a life full of nervous defiance as well as aching remorse. Are We There finds Van Etten continuing to split her heart wide open for all to see inside of, and once again reveals a generous and honest beauty

Van Etten’s isn’t necessarily grappling with the end of something. No, harder, she appears to be attempting to catalogue the sins of a horrifying, abusive relationship while still neck deep in the situation, attempting to find hope, to glimpse a future while desperately trying to stay afloat

She achieves this in a breathless, downbeat flurry of songs about blame, agony and those desert dotted glimpses of an oasis that too often prove to be a mirage

Opening track ‘Afraid Of Nothing’, begins with bright, clean guitar picking and bold, yet plaintive, piano chords; the track is a careful balancing act between caution and optimism. Van Etten’s recent reacquaintance with the piano features heavily on this album, giving her vocals a new platform on which to thrive, leaving guitars to add occasional flashes of raw and rough texture

The piano-led ballad entitled ‘I Love You But I’m Lost’ shines with the promise of a brighter, more fulfilled future but the self-torture is fully revealed on the gory ‘Your Love Is Killing Me’, in which her remarkable, shuddering lyrics order “Break my legs so I won’t walk to you / Cut my tongue so I won’t talk to you” as a martial drum unleashes a waterfall of release, her voice spectacular but not some meaningless fireworks display, rather an incendiary, relentless confessional

Her voice on ‘Our Love’ sounds less bombastic, verging on a tearful quiver, as she reveals the full extent of her despair, “I’m reliving my own hell / Someone throws the ladder down / Still don’t know what I have found in our love.” But whilst relationships have left her scolded, torn and traumatised, her music provides a chance of recovery, nourishment and redemption

There are moments like this all across the record; the Neil Young quake of ‘You Know Me Well’ thunders “You know me well / You show me hell” – simple, direct, terrible. “I will see this through” Van Etten promises herself later and it’s profoundly upsetting; “He can break me with one hand” she lilts over a shining shoegaze guitar line on ‘Break Me’, a tune with the giddy feel of a John Hughes movie theme, the kind that fills the dancefloor, the kids, gratefully, oblivious to its meaning

The centerpiece of the record may be the high hum, low strum, horn-driven ‘Tarifa’, a song that sounds exactly like a hungover early morning drag on an unwanted cigarette. “I can’t remember anything at all” she declares, later adding the childlike, eye-watering “It was seven – I wish it was seven all night” alongside the now to-be-expected “Chew me out when I’m stupid” self-loathing that runs, a black river, through this album

Its angles may be softer, its songs slower and more reflective, but the coupling of this newfound cohesiveness with an assured command of melody ensures that the record maintains a power very much its own. ‘I Know’ is her most striking vocal performance to date - a genuine workout - that takes a typically frank set of lyrics and imbues them with uncommon feeling. ‘Taking Chances’ and ‘Nothing Will Change’, meanwhile, are further highlights; the former furnishing its loping gait with swooping horns, the latter with creaking woodwind

Are We There signs off with the thundering, thudding drumbeat and warm electric strum of ‘Every Time The Sun Comes Up‘. She croons half-cut jokes such as “I washed your dishes, but I shit in you bathroom,” signifying that it’s not all doom and gloom in the creative world of Sharon Van Etten, including a recording goof right at the end of the track. This wry smile, a rare moment of jollity, making the track, and what preceded it, even more touching

For sheer consistency and confidence Are We There is Van Etten’s best yet. It may lack some of the rawness of her earlier efforts (but then, that’s what they’re there for) but it’s both satisfying and necessary to see her latest get a few layers of polish. It’s an album full of resonance, one likely to sink deep into your bones, and it should most certainly soundtrack any kind of romantic road trip. And at least if you can’t get yourself out in the great wide open, Are We There will make sure to conjure it up and hold you rapt as you trundle through it together.

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