Sharon Van Etten’s debut album, the spare, acoustic Because I Was In Love came out in 2009. Half a decade (almost to the day) later, Van Etten’s music sounds less like dipping a toe in the water than cannonballing into the deep end. Are We There is her most assured statement yet, a collection of skewed love songs that treat pain like a source of momentum.
The sense of certainty may come from Van Etten's increased control over the recording process. Her last album, 2012’s Tramp, featured numerous collaborators, including The National’s Aaron Dessner, who served as a producer. This time around, Van Etten handled her own production, and the resulting recordings feel intimate and occasionally raw, the languid countrypolitan tinges on her breakthrough album epic (traces of the five years she spent living in Murfreesboro, Tennessee) replaced with a focused intensity that pushes even Are We There ‘s softer moments to painful extremes.
There are some surprising choices, most notably a drum machine that appears like a pace car at the beginning of several songs. “Taking Chances” at first has an almost kitschy feel, but its arid guitars and ghostly harmonies eventually elevate the lo-fi percussion to an exaggerated, noir-like intensity. A mechanical beat also anchors the second half of the album’s most powerful one-two emotional punch, occurring three songs in.
If you need condensed proof of Van Etten’s emotional range, this is the place to look. “Your Love is Killing Me” is a six and a half minute emotional chokehold, the sound of thunder rolling in. Few singers can create this kind of intensity without screaming—when Van Etten sings “cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you/ burn my skin so I can’t feel you/ stab my eyes so I can’t see/ you like it when I let you walk over me,” the effect is painful, only mitigated by her appealingly smoky vibrato. It’s a song that catches you up in its current and doesn’t let go until you’re shaken to something between exhaustion and transcendence.
Following that roaring thunderclap of a song, “Our Love” is a surprisingly soft love song, the dulcet harmonies of the chorus sounding like a classic Motown duet. Though, on closer listens, it’s not quite a retreat—Van Etten leads off the first verse by describing her partner’s skill with backhanded compliments. Later, it becomes clear why such a pretty, windy song doesn’t betray the ferocity of the preceding one, with Van Etten admitting: “Still don’t know what I have found… in our love.” It’s the wonder that arises on the other side of the storm, the comedown after the fight where you take stock of your ambivalence and don’t get much further than awe at your own pain.
Much of the album is similarly concerned with feelings of uncertainty, from the trials of touring to the persistent anxiety of daily life. “I Love You But I’m Lost” and “I Know” are piano-driven ballads about wrestling with personal demons. Van Etten lets them breathe with simple arrangements, and her voice has never sounded so powerful, navigating ambivalent feelings with alternating delicacy and wild, untrammeled force.
Despite all her doubts, Van Etten writes with a conviction rooted in material certainties: the way her voice can soar over swelling guitars, or be pulled down to earth by chords pounded on a piano. Album closer “Every Time the Sun Comes Up” is made up of laboriously protracted couplets, among them an entreaty to “feel real room hi-fi,” and a deadpan admission about shitting in someone’s bathroom. Are We There is a thrilling, often raw listen, and it’s nice to be reminded that the person who made it is a living, breathing, (and yes, shitting) human.