Posted on by: acid stag

Sharon Van Etten: Are We There [Album Review]

Words by Tim Onslow.

“I love you but I’m lost”

Exquisitely well-connected Brooklyn folkstress Sharon Van Etten imparts her fourth LP, Are We There, a provocative instalment of the vulnerable grace and bitter brittle style she has made her guarded own.

Emerging from the insufferably hip Brooklyn milieu (mostly concentrated around the coffee, pot and whiskey-animated neighbourhood of Williamsburg), that seems to have regularly served as a crucible for the last 15 years of American indie, Van Etten is a certifiably idiosyncratic mix of assured power and unstudied, often naked insecurity. This album is mostly concerned with solidly built piano and acoustic guitar ballads, but it also allows its cautious muse to wander successfully toward tightly-produced beat-driven excursions, as seen on lead single ‘Taking Chances.’

Sharon Van Etten has only to languidly stretch her svelte tattooed limbs before brushing against other highly potent personalities, lurking in her fabled locale. Firstly, she had the good fortune to go to high school with a guy called Colin Malone. This connection allowed her an opportunity to nervously press an early demo CD-R (remember those?) in to the paws of his brother, a certain Kyp Malone, multi-instrumentalist and member of, TV On The Radio.

Kyp loved her sound and later famously said of Van Etten, “She’s been silencing rooms in drunken bars for a long time,” – and played Van Etten on his NPR show, starting her on the road to a record deal. Van Etten’s third studio album in 2012 titled Tramp, was produced by fellow Brooklynite Aaron Dessner (of The National), and featured appearances from fellow National-ist Bryce Dessner, Zach Condon (of Beirut) and Jenn Wasner (of Wye Oak).

These vaunted associations don’t necessarily amount to some kind of cosy cultural nepotism, they represent a genuinely fascinating cross-pollination of many gifted artists intertwining within each other’s careers, a pattern repeated throughout the Brooklyn scene.

Recorded at such cultural backwaters as Hobo Sounds Studios at Weehawken, NJ and Electric Lady Land in NYC, Are We There reportedly boasts the use of instruments originally manhandled by such obscure personalities as a Mr. John Lennon, and a lady by the name of Patti Smith. While this may be an emanation of a frothing press release (and also decidedly (yet deliciously) fetishistic), given Van Etten’s blueblood indie pedigree, I tend to believe these incidental intrigues. And not that the contextual allure of such heritage enhances an album: this record doesn’t need to rest on the laurels of reputation. It could have emerged from an electrified cave in Wollongong, for all I care; Are We There would still command attention with standout songs like ‘Tarifa’ and ‘I Know,’ with atmospheric arrangements throughout, and with Van Etten’s engaging vocal style. She has a beautiful voice, comfortable within a wide register. There are echoes of PJ Harvey in the brave, husky roll of her pitch, throwing itself to the edge of its own range at times, achieving something not always technically perfect, but instilling a pained and moving authenticity.

Every song on this album is wrought with a sense of bitter romantic stratagems, a drama exists between surrendering to the gaping defencelessness of love, whilst simultaneously inculcating against it with a battery of caustic reproachful asides. Are We There is a stirring and bittersweet experience.

Rating: ★★★

Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There is out now on iTunes, with thanks to Jagjaguwar. | |


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