Sharon Van Etten – Are We There (Album Review)

The Sharon Van Etten you’ve gotten to know on her last two records Epic and Tramp, respectively, has made some major changes. Her newest release Are We There is more lucid and much bigger, making waves with more pop-heavy melodies and a quicker pulse than we’re used to from her. And it’s really something to see an already incredibly exciting singer-songwriter continue to evolve and try new things. Even her voice sounds more powerful, with a much wider range this time around.

These songs are ballsier, and not quite as airy as 2012’s Tramp. Instead, she sounds strong and intense, though somehow still lighter and sunnier. Many of the songs on Are We There harken back to a few of the catchier tunes from Epic. For instance, “Every Time the Sun Comes Up” is that same breath of fresh air as “One Day”.

“Every Time the Sun Comes Up”, like Are We There as a whole, is rich with harmonies, and Etten’s vocals are rougher and rawer, showing these amazing little imperfections. She sounds smoky and sultry when she sings, “I washed your dishes, but I shit in your bathroom,” and it’s clear not only that this is a standout cut, but that this record may be more personal than anything else she’s done. When you let it play till the end you catch a little outtake of her laughing in the studio, and it feels so intimate and almost voyeuristic.

On the revelatory epic six-minute track “Your Love is Killing Me”, Etten bellows and belts, hitting deep, throaty notes that take you by surprise. The songwriting here is painfully poignant, and she captures the essence of a toxic relationship with such beauty. “You Know Me Well” has this same effect, piercing through you, and reminding you of every time you’ve ever had your heart broken.

The opening notes of the album are lively and bright. “Afraid of Nothing” is a stellar choice to introduce us to this next evolution of Sharon Van Etten. “I need you here/to be afraid of nothing,” she proclaims, romantically, and you believe her. At many times over the course of Are We There, what is in actuality a breakup record feels a lot like falling deeply in love. It’s breathless and sexy, and full of risks, like the excitement of a new relationship, even as Etten recounts the hurt and heartbreak.

“Our Love” is more playful, with an oddball beat that’s got a hint of funk, while “Tarifa” and “I Love You But I’m Lost” are more classic, ethereal Etten, with soaring, angelic harmonies. But even these more mellow tracks have a certain heartbeat that’s been more muted in the past and seems to have come alive now. It feels like a welcome departure to hear Etten take this leap into such uncharted territory, with down tempo beats and vulnerability in her writing. “He can break me/with one hand,” she sings on “Break Me”, and it feels like reading a forbidden diary; one we’re lucky to have gotten our hands on.

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