Sharon Van Etten has followed up the exquisite Tramp with another husky, dusky take on relationship devastation and persistence. Are We There, the Brooklyn songwriter’s fourth album in five years, is dark and forceful as an expansive folk undercurrent lifts the music up alongside her simmering, rasp-inflected voice.
Van Etten’s lyrics are spare, cryptic, filled with loosely linked images and utterances that favor mood over lucidity. Are We There is a mist of impressions, held together by seemingly deeply felt sentiments and the timeless soar of the woman’s vocals. The songs contain a restrained, pointed intensity. With hawk-like drive, the music dives into textures and tones well-matched with the black-and-white on-the-road photography that informs its album art. Though variation often eludes Van Etten, the sound she has developed is mesmeric.
From the slinking synth-tinged “Taking Chances” to the direct piano ballad “Nothing Will Change,” Van Etten has created a heavy, melancholic vision. On “Your Love is Killing Me,” the singer pleads to have her legs broken, tongue cut, skin burnt, and eyes stabbed out to avoid experiencing the pull of a wayward lover. Even the organ and horn buoyed “Tarifa,” the least macabre-feeling song on the record, involves a sunrise being scared off. Similarly, the peaceful radio-friendly “Our Love” sounds much more soothing than its hellfire verses imply.
Are We There closes with the defiant and ironic “Every Time the Sun Comes Up.” The track finds Van Etten’s persona describing herself as a sexual “one-hit wonder” who wakes to trouble each dawn. Oddly enough, given the album’s polished severity, the song ends with playful studio-room banter. Van Etten jokingly sings, “Maybe something will change.” And though little about the songwriter’s oeuvre has changed on Are We There, the aching, bitter beauty that remains intact is a wonder worth hitting up more than once.