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It was hard not to be completely enamoured with Sharon Van Etten's 2012 breakthrough album, Tramp. Here was a singer who sang with a fiery sadness and unflinching honesty, using her haunting voice to exorcise her emotional demons, desperately trying to become a better person. Tramp was a devastating reflection on personal anguish and the failure connect to those you supposedly love. Details of a life full of nervous defiance as well as aching remorse. Are We There finds Van Etten continuing to split her heart wide open for all to see inside of, and once again reveals a generous and honest beauty.
On Tramp, Van Etten enlisted the production skills of the National's Aaron Dessner who helped heighten much of the album's brooding gloominess. However, determined to create an album completely on her own terms, Are We There has been self-produced along with recording engineer Stewart Lerman (Antony and the Johnsons, Sufjan Stevens, St Vincent). Having found her priorities shift dramatically in recent years, time spent as a musician began to totally engulf her personal life. Finding balance often leads to sacrifice and, as often is the case when artistic endeavour takes precedence, it was her long-term relationship that recently fell by the wayside.
It's difficult to read the balance of emotion in Are We There's opening track 'Afraid Of Nothing', beginning with bright, clean guitar picking and bold, yet plaintive, piano chords, the track is a careful balancing act between caution and optimism. Van Etten's recent reacquaintance with the piano features heavily on this album, giving her vocals a new platform on which to thrive, leaving guitars to add occasional flashes of raw and rough texture.
For Van Etten, music in an essential outlet, a crucial therapy to aid her in putting the past to bed and setting her on the right path to move forward. She often paints a painful picture of her previous relationship, in the gut-wrenching 'Your Love Is Killing Me' she hollers the following lines with a conviction that verges on discomfiture, "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." Each syllable delivered with a staggering depth of feeling. Her voice on 'Our Love' sounds less bombastic, verging on a tearful quiver, as she reveals the full extent of her despair, "I'm reliving my own hell / Someone throws the ladder down / Still don't know what I have found in our love." But whilst relationships have left her scolded, torn and traumatised, her music provides a chance of recovery, nourishment and redemption.
Whilst Tramp ended on the crushing one-two sucker punch of 'I'm Wrong' and 'Joke Or A Lie', Are We There signs off with the thundering, thudding drumbeat and warm electric strum of 'Every Time The Sun Comes Up'. She croons half-cut jokes such as "I washed your dishes, but I shit in you bathroom," signifying that it's not all doom and gloom in the creative world of Sharon Van Etten, including a recording goof right at the end of the track. This wry smile, a rare moment of jollity, making the track, and what preceded it, even more touching.
This is not a breakup album, it's so much more than that. It is a place of solace and of memory, some memories pleasurable and others unbearably painful. Are We There is one of those rare albums when you stop listening to the music as simply a combination of chords, melodies and carefully constructed instrumentation, but as essential, emotional communication from one person to another.
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