Comeback kid indeed. Sharon Van Etten is back with her first full length album since 2014’s Are We There. In talking with Uncut magazine, Van Etten noted that influences for this release include Portishead, Nick Cave, and Suicide. This shows through in tracks such as “Memorial Day” and “Hands”. Introspective lyrics with rough, dark and moody electronics. The former being more atmospheric and the latter being more distorted.
While the electronics add texture to a few of the tracks, it’s the more conventional songs that are the most memorable. First single “Comeback Kid” is propulsive and a standout song from 2018. “Seventeen” is a celebration of NYC and how its changes over the years. “Stay” closes out the album with tender lyrics about Van Etten’s one-year old son. While the electronics can at times sound too stark and rob Van Etten’s voice of some it’s warmth, her personality continues to shine throughout.
A few months ago when the Winnipeg Folk Fest line-up was announced, keen music fans immediately jumped for joy at seeing the name Sharon Van Etten listed to play the Big Blue @ Night stage. Since releasing her debut in 2009, the New Jersey born, Brooklyn based musician has been busy touring and putting out an album once every two years. 2012 proved to be a breakout year for the confessional singer songwriter as the Tramp album received wide spread acclaim.
Self-produced album, Are We There, continues Van Etten’s style of very emotional and raw lyrics over spare instrumentation. If you cynically rearrange the song titles of the last three songs, you discover a theme that runs through the album – “I Know” “Every Time The Sun Comes Up” “Nothing Will Change”. The lyrics can be bleak and this hits a fever pitch on the six minute “Your Love Is Killing Me”. “Break my legs so I won’t run to you, cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you, burn my skin so I can’t feel you…” When reading the lyrics, it can feel like listening to your actress friend dramatically telling you about a recent break-up… that you can’t relate to at all.
But if you sit and only half listen to that friend and start to hear the rain hitting the window pane, the cat scratching the door, distant laughter from down the hallway, and start thinking about your own life, suddenly the world starts to open up. The strings on album opener “Afraid of Nothing” are a bit more dramatic the fifth time around and “Taking Chances” is a classy take on 80s adult R&B. “I Know” contains the best vocal on the album, as Van Etten’s voice swoops and cracks along to just a piano. Somewhere Carole King is nodding approval. Are We There closes with “Every Time The Sun Comes Up” which lets in a little smile with the lines – “people say I’m a one hit wonder, but what happens when I have two? I washed your dishes but I shit your bathroom”.
Somehow it wasn’t until reading the lyrics then discarding them that the album came alive. Snippets started to shine through. “A couple years later when I saw you making western moves… you always believed in me and I always believed in you”. Van Etten lays everything bare on Are We There; even while showing much vulnerability, it’s her power and strength that you will remember.