Review Summary: Sharon van Etten's fourth album Are We There is a powerful and emotional album with a full, but organised, instrumentation and excellent production.
The title Are We There
suggests a journey, or at the very least, a longing towards the journey's end. Just like many works from heart upon the sleeve songwriters, it's an album that is determined by the circumstances during its creation. Written during the dissolvement of a ten-year-old relationship that ended due to the difficulty of maintaining a relationship with a busy touring life, it's full of pain and doubt. Album highlight ‘Your Love Is Killing Me’ is as brutal as its title would suggest; it's a song about unhealthy love represented in one of the rawest manners possible with its bleak instrumental, devastating lyrics and Sharon van Etten’s powerful vocals. There is a disturbing force in her vocals during the chorus that showcases both strength and despair, making the song her strongest performance on the album.
This aforementioned doubt creeps into the album from every corner. ‘Tarifa’ is supposed to be the album’s happy place, a song written during summer vacation with her partner in the namesake Spanish town. It’s a soulful piece with its mellow guitar strumming, organ and bass clarinet. There is a peaceful quality to it, but even then, there is an uncertainty to it as well when van Etten sings “Tell me when / Tell me when is this over?”. Are We There
can sound deceitfully sweet sometimes. The track ‘Our Love’ similarly lulls you in with its delightful beats and pretty vocals, only to contrast those vibes with some of the more depressing lyrics of the album: “At the bottom of the well/ I am reliving my own hell”.
The production on Are We There
is incredible. There is never a single instrument that steals the show on the album, rather the instruments intertwine together to create a full sound that works as a canvas for van Etten’s voice to do its magic. For example, there is a weight to the bass tone in the intro of ‘Taking Chances’ that is beautifully contrasted with the light piano melody. Elsewhere on the album, the track ‘You Know Me Well’ opens with a marching, thunderous drum beat that creates an ominous atmosphere together with static guitars and a simple piano melody, making it one of the darker songs on the album. ‘I Love You But I’m Lost’ and ‘I Know’, in contrast, showcase the album in its most simple and stripped-down side, with little more than a piano melody and van Etten’s vocals. However, there is a beauty in this simplicity with both tracks having a touching melody and vocal performance.
For all the doubt that is expressed lyrically, Are We There
is an album that is created with purpose. Everything on the album sounds incredibly organized and no note or instrument seems out of place. In that respect ‘Every Time The Sun Comes Up’ feels like a fish out of water. The line “I washed your dishes, but I shit in your bathroom” was a studio joke that somehow never left the album and the song ends with studio banter that doesn’t feel all that connected to the song. However, this light-heartedness is exactly what this album could use at the end, and it’s a refreshing reminder that life goes on no matter how difficult the road ahead may look. In the end we can never know where our choices lead us, but as long as we keep going, we’ll get there someday.