In the last song on her new album, Sharon Van Etten sings, “People say I’m a one-hit wonder, but what happens when I have two?” It’s only a matter of time until we find out. Van Etten’s latest is a masterpiece, an album of extraordinary depth and sophistication that finds the New York singer and songwriter in full command of her considerable talent.
Are We There is the first of her four LPs that Van Etten produced herself, and her clarity of vision is breathtaking. Like her previous work, these songs are confessional in tone, but with a new emotional richness, as if she has learned to focus the power of her heart instead of unleashing it in a torrent. “Every other record is pretty personal, but in a different way,” Van Etten says. “I would say they’re more intimate than personal, if that makes sense.”
Perfect sense. Van Etten strikes a masterful balance here between power and subtlety. Gone is the strummy folk-singer guitar sound of her earlier records, and she smooths out the fuller, if sometimes murky, atmospherics of 2012’s Tramp on arrangements that place greater emphasis on keyboards and the Omnichord, a vintage electronic instrument that flavors several songs on Are We There. In fact, the album opens with a minor-key piano chord on “Afraid of Nothing” that raises goosebumps, a sensation heightened by Doug Keith’s understated guitar arpeggios and then Van Etten’s voice. Her vocals are dusky and mournful at first, until harmonies buoy them up as the song gently takes flight, an edge of determination tempering her wistful lyrics.
Though most of Are We There steers through the tumult of a relationship that has since ended (the song titles tell the story: “Your Love Is Killing Me,” “I Love You But I’m Lost,” “Nothing Will Change,” “Break Me”), Van Etten never wallows, nor turns vengeful or bitter. Rather, these songs are her attempt to make sense of it all, and she sifts through the promise, the heartache and the loneliness with dignity, even elegance. That’s not to suggest she hides her anguish. Van Etten lets loose on “Your Love Is Killing Me,” her voice throbbing as she fights, essentially, for the space to catch her breath. She is sorrowful over eddies of guitar and thundercloud drums on “You Know Me Well,” while a sympathetic horn vamp acts as a keel to keep “Tarifa” right-side up against Van Etten’s forceful swings between wild hope and despair.
Along with the enveloping musical structures, Van Etten’s skill at piecing together tight vocal harmonies is on full display. Her singing partner is most often Heather Woods Broderick, who is also in Van Etten’s touring band, but Lower Dens’ Jana Hunter joins them in the lush blend of voices on the muscular first single, “Taking Chances.” A couple tracks later, Torres mastermind Mackenzie Scott sweetens Van Etten’s uncertainty on “Our Love,” an almost delicate song layered with keyboards and a keening guitar part.
Are We There doesn’t lack for superlatives, but perhaps the most impressive thing about the album is that it illustrates the scope of Van Etten’s talent. From the quavering piano ballad “I Love You But I’m Lost” to the muscular rhythm pushing “Break Me” to the rawboned swagger in her voice on the Springsteenian album closer “Every Time the Sun Comes Up” (the source of the “one-hit wonder” line), she has never sounded more confident. Van Etten’s fourth album marks the true arrival of a singer who’s been on her way for a long time, and thinking of her as anything less than a career artist is certainly a vast underestimation.