Review Summary: you like it.
“Your Love Is Killing Me” is currently playing in my living room. We’re separated by a wall, which is kind of nice. Listening to it kind of makes me feel the same way I do when I’m at a Swans gig not wearing ear buds; I should totally, absolutely have them in – the highest, most evil-reducing quality possible, and next time, I swear I’m not going to go deaf. Every time I listen to “Your Love Is Killing Me” I feel kinda like I shouldn’t be turning it up to my amp’s dubious MAX setting and that maybe I should just never listen to it again. A wall seems like a good substitute for that – it makes me concentrate on it less. It makes me less attached to what is ultimately a horrible, disturbing masterpiece.
I think the point of “Your Love Is Killing Me” is that I should need there to be a wall between me and the song, a little protective forcefield that captures all of its evil shi
t, but I don’t; rather, I listen up close, ears piqued between the speakers, treating the pain like the marvellous scenery Van Etten lets her hair blow in the wind for. Van Etten’s rallying cry on Are We There
is to an abusive lover – “You tell me that you like it / when our minds become diseased” – but, in a way, it feels like it’s to us: when tragedy strikes, when it’s turned into art, when you scrobble it to your last.fm account a hundred times and stamp a little loveheart next to it? You like it.
I don’t think Are We There
is a meta kind of masterpiece, though, a deconstructive piece of music about listening to break-ups rather than going through them: it’s no Burn Your Fire, because Van Etten is more interested in walking into the blazing fire than stepping back and watching it crackle. “Your Love Is Killing Me” just reminds me, momentarily, that I’m listening to treachery and desolation, and that I can’t get enough of it. The kind of indie rock songs I’d scale against it, in terms of grandiosity, aren’t as unhealthy to love: “Rebellion” and “Wake Up” are about really
living, and “I’ll Believe In Anything” is about winning. “Your Love Is Killing Me” is just a lost bloody cause. It rises and rises, the drums played like they’ve been sounded – calling an army of the defeated to battle – and the guitars crunchy, ripe for judgment day. Van Etten’s voice, too, makes majestic gestures: it soars, sustaining notes for choruses at a time. If I find this song, one that had to be manipulated and destroyed to get made, to be sweet and addictive, it’s because of the confrontation: Van Etten can’t step back for a minute, so how could I?
Oh, and like, of course the very next song is called “Our Love”, and is sleek and adoring and all about the beats
. Van Etten is a supreme producer (she might have benefited from Aaron Dessner one upon a time, back when she made songs that play out in fractures, under dimmed lights – she doesn’t anymore) but she’s an even more phenomenal record writer. The scene changes are pristine, anachronistic but never contradictory, because isn’t love one thing but not the other? “Our Love” can contain the blisters of “Your Love Is Killing Me” and nonetheless sound like it was made for two lovers to dance to. Van Etten can switch from a completely untouched piano ballad to two songs that may well have been made by London Grammar on another, sparkling day (the synths on “Break Me”, oh my). I don’t think anyone’s made a record that understands the need for flow, but never for homogeneity or ‘tightness’, since the War On Drugs’ ambient-guitar showdown Slave Ambient. You can never get enough air, on Are We There
, but there’s so much passing through it.
Really, though, I can just never get enough of these records, the ones that sound so aspirational but front so much realism. I could never not find a song as wide-eyed and gorgeously, sadly arranged as “Every Time The Sun Goes Up” to be romantic, but Van Etten would tell you it damn well isn’t: “I wash your dishes / but I shi
t in your bathroom”. It’s probably going to be the most used line of 2014, the one y’all scrawl out or repeat in your worst moments. And there’s “I Love You But I’m Lost”, which expresses unrequited love by explaining why it can’t be expressed: she sings “I love you but I’m not someone who takes shots”, but the song gets made. Are We There
only very momentarily makes me realise that I am listening to something quite horrific, but it pretty much always makes me think I’m listening to something special.