I first heard Sharon Van Etten when she opened for The National at last year’s Twilight Concert Series in Salt Lake City. She was easily the best opening act I had ever seen.
Her albums “Tramp” (2012) and “Because I Was in Love” (2009) quickly became an essential part of my musical rotation. Like music often does, “Tramp” became the soundtrack of a season. Her voice and words have now played in the background of some of the most heartbreaking moments of my life. Her rhythms managed to both ease and intensify my sorrow. “Tramp” and Beck’s “Morning Phase” were perfect music for a very imperfect time.
I didn’t need another album from her; like Paul Simon’s “Surprise,” The National’s “High Violet”, Arcade Fire’s “Funeral” and a slew of other albums in my life, “Tramp” has entered the dark corridors of my subconscious. When I hear “Give Out” or “All I Can” or “I’m Wrong,” I will forever think of empty dark hospitals. It’s easiest to revisit these things through music. In fact, I believe there is even some science to back that up. Because of that album, I will never forget some of the things I’ve felt over the past few months. Hard things. Things I’d rather like to forget. Luckily, she won’t let me.
Sharon Van Etten owes me nothing more.
To my surprise, however, she released her fourth full-length album this year. Listening to it helps me separate what I initially loved about her songwriting from the memories she helped create. I loved the tenderness and the rage and the lack of irony. She takes her emotions seriously, drawing a stark contrast from the self-loathing synth-pop that has consumed most of the alternative scene these days.
Everything that I love most about Van Etten’s sound is present on “Are We There.” In some ways it’s a better album than “Tramp,” but with an artist like Van Etten there’s no use in ranking her music. She is essentially singing one song, over and over, forcing you to feel it clearer with each new verse. “I love you but I’m lost,” she sings seven tracks into “Are We There,” rephrasing something she and other musicians have sung for a millennia: Human relationships are hard, and sometimes even terrible. But they’re all we have.
“Are We There” continues the earnest crescendos of “Tramp,” but this time she plays with their strength. Songs such as “Break Me” or “Tarifa” fade in and out of passion, reminding you that maintaining an emotion is hard work. But sometimes, like with the throbbing “You Know Me Well,” Van Etten keeps up the pace, voice shaking with her trademark strength-through-weakness vulnerability. Once the song is over, you wonder if listening to it might be more tiring than actually playing in the band.
It’s always refreshing to hear music that has no place in a dance hall. The only neon lights that are worthy of “Are We There” are in the lettering of a Walgreens. When you’ve pulled over into a pharmacy parking lot to gather your thoughts on a late night drive, this is the music that will play, whether it be on your stereo or simply in the back of your mind.
It’s only a matter of time before “Every Time the Sun Comes Up” plays during a particularly emotional episode of Parenthood. That’s when the world will fall in love with her. And They can certainly have her. She’s already given me everything I needed from her. This album, the rest of her career, these are all bonuses for me.
Bonus: As it so happens, Sharon did a song with The National. It might be one of my favorite songs of all time.