Epics come in all shapes, sizes and moods. Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There, the newest album from the Brooklynite, is a grandiose and sweeping journey through the ruins of a long-demolished romance. The album impresses that Van Etten has made huge leaps as an artist since 2012’s Tramp, and found inner resolve in an otherwise bleak landscape. She has been through the thick of it, but she has reached a balanced maturity and perspective to find some small measure of humour in darkness.
The overlaying story arc on Are We There is Van Etten’s escape from a corrosive and oft-abusive relationship, paralleled by the contrasting instrumentation of somber organs overlaid on often up-tempo, springy rhythms. The album’s first few tracks toil in the “once upon a time”, the unknowable something that hooked her into the poisonous arrangement. “Taking Chances”, the album’s second track, paints a vivid picture of the tumultous cycle of abuse. Van Etten coos “Turn on the charm – Call to response now – Sitting on the porch – Looking for a way out”, embodying the impetus of the rest of the album within a single stanza.
“Your Love is Killing Me” is the album’s most poignant and brutal track, as military snares and sweeping organs depict a funeral march as Van Etten laments her dreadful reality and its doubly dreadful consequences. “When I let you walk over me – You tell me that you like it – You love me as you torture me” acknowledges a cathartic purge of violence in a moment that, for whatever reason, could not have been fulfilled untill after-the-fact.
Van Etten displays a remarkably candid complexity on “Tarifa” as “Hit the ground, the yard – I found something – I could taste your mouth” elicits an unsuccessful attempt to return to the safety of childhood, ensnarled by adulthood’s baggage. Van Etten’s spectacular lyricism conjoinsthe disjointed memories of innocence and perversion into a loop, the beginning and end smashed into one another.The album’s narrative reaches an impasse at its mid-point when Van Etten surrenders to self-doubt and scrambles to find any remnant of redeemable goodness in a force that is, ultimately, destructive. She deepens the nuance and complexity on “You Know Me Well”, another one of the album’s many high points, with the line “when it all comes out – We’re as empty as a brick house that we – Built without the sides”. Are We There holds listeners close on Van Etten’s painful path as it reaches its unresolved conclusion and offers no closure. The album’s final track, “Every Time the Sun Comes Up”, breaks course to playfully acknowledge the heavy expectations of her past work, “People say I’m a one-hit wonder – But what happens when I have two?”
As much Chrissie Hynde as she is Nina Simone – Van Etten stands as a woman with the power to overcome life’s adversity and the power to faithfully recreate that adversity on tape. The immersive journey is a rare glimpse at the intimate multiplicities that comprise a person, from beginning to end.
Essential Tracks: “Taking Chances”, “Your Love is Killing Me”, and “You Know Me Well”.