State of Transition
With Are We There, Sharon Van Etten has four studio albums under her belt—no small feat. The New Jersey native turned Brooklynite singer-songwriter released her debut album in 2009 (titled Because I Was In Love), but it was with 2012’s Tramp that she really caught the music world’s attention. Tramp had an indie all-star cast: it was produced by Aaron Dessner of The National, with contributions from Dessner’s twin Bryce (also of The National), Zach Condon (Beirut), Julianna Barwick, Matt Barrick (Walkmen), and Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, among others. But on Are We There, produced by Stewart Lerman (who’s worked with the likes of Sufjan Stevens, St. Vincent and Regina Spektor), Van Etten moves away from the guitar-driven tunes on her previous releases, transitioning toward something a little more her own.
“Afraid of Nothing” sets the album’s tone right away, leading straight into the kind of vulnerable, introspective sound that characterizes Are We There. Soft, sweet guitar and warm piano chords accompany strings and Van Etten’s fluid vocals, moving into a slightly folksy ballad. “I can’t wait ’til we’re afraid of nothing,” she sings, “I can’t wait ’til we hide from nothing.” But it seems Van Etten lays her emotions bare through the record’s eleven tracks—certainly something that takes courage and conquering fear.
Many of the songs sound like they’d be perfectly at home in some dim, slightly smoky coffee shop or homey bar, like “Taking Chances,” with its languid bass and drums, muted guitar, and soulful vocals. It’s a little dark, but not too much—there’s no despair here, only pensiveness, reflection—a light kind of sadness. The same goes for tracks like “Our Love,” which adds bluesy bending guitar notes and a simple chorus with layered vocal harmonies, or “Tarifa,” a very quiet but enjoyably rich and melodic tune. Other songs are more balladic: “Your Love is Killing Me” starts with soft organ and muted percussion, but builds with martial drum rolls into a big, stately chorus with descending piano and echoing drums (and plenty of violent imagery about heartbreak, if you listen to the lyrics).
On the simple, slow-paced “Nothing Will Change,” Van Etten plaintively repeats, in a wistful mantra, “Maybe something will change.” While things in the romantic department might not be working out so well for her, she has made things change in her musical career—on Are We There, we see Van Etten in a state of transition and flux, an unpunctuated period, working to find the sound that works best for her. “There is room to grow,” she sings on “I Love You But I’m Lost,” and there’s definitely space for Van Etten to continue growing and developing her own sound.