Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten has been crafting therapeutic folk-pop for around five years now, though usually with the aid of various producers. Written and recorded herself, Are We There, her fourth full-length, is a Sharon Van Etten record through-and-through. She took complete ownership of the album right down to photographing the cover image and handwriting the liner notes. In such a manner, it’s both more and less fragile than her previous albums. Are We There has meatier arrangements but the songs, when rubbed raw down to just the lyrics and vocal melodies, are still the Sharon Van Etten we’ve come to know: somewhat confessional and thoroughly poetic.
The minimal Van Etten is still present on the piano ballads I Know and the solemnly gorgeous I Love You But I’m Lost. But Van Etten displays her chameleonic vocals throughout the album, be it with the Beats-era lilting vocals of Every Time The Sun Comes Up, or her transformation into a sultry chanteuse cantering down a gaslight-and-fog alleyway on the percussive Taking Chances.
Despite their aesthetic differences, the core of each track navigates the unfiltered extremes of an emotionally all-encompassing relationship (“I love you but I’m lost between the pain and cost” she sings on I Love You But I’m Lost). She does not walk on eggshells or tiptoe around anguish. The album is loaded with an emphatic You, the romantic object of both Van Etten’s desire and scorn, someone too close to push away yet a constant source of pain.
But when she cries the harrowing chorus, “Break my legs so I won’t walk to you/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,” on the volcanic Your Love Is Killing Me, the album hits the pinnacle of its poignant grandiosity. Love isn’t simpering, she tells us, it’s violent and painful at its base. Each word she utters becomes more strained and taught as the song progresses, and they cut like barbs with such fervor that Van Etten has solidified her place among the most powerfully emotive storytellers.
Whether playing up the drowsy folk of the forlorn or the heart-on-the sleeve soloist, Sharon Van Etten digs deep into subtleties of falling into a k-hole of conflicting emotions. She’s clawing her way through the confusion, and sometimes that climb is a bloody one.