The sad-eyed, acoustic guitar-playing singer-songwriter with painstaking songs about love, hurt, the expectations and the disappointments: it’s nothing new to music, it’s been done time and time again, and it’s not going away anytime soon. Sharon Van Etten has quickly become a standout in today’s field of singer-songwriters. Beginning with her 2009 debut, Because I Was In Love, She’s garnered a reputation of delivering honest, intimate songs paired with distinct and beautifully unapologetic harmonies. With her two subsequent releases, 2010’s epic and 2012’s Tramp, Van Etten made it clear that she is not staying the same; both albums incorporated further instrumentation, collaborations, production and sound exploration. With Are We There Van Etten continues an unabashed march forward. Self-producing the new album along with veteran producer Stewart Lerman, Van Etten delivers a collection of songs that further demonstrate her intensity, boundlessness, courage and confidence.
Are We There lead single, “Taking Chances” introduces the fresh musical direction much in the way the fast-paced and bustling “Serpents” did for Tramp. “Taking Chances” builds on a cool, atmospheric beat; it incorporates a lounge feel that Van Etten’s voice commands, without overpowering, and peaks over the track’s wonderfully arresting bridge.
With songs titled “Taking Chances,” “Afraid of Nothing,” “Break Me,” and “Your Love is Killing Me,” Are We There is declaring an unhindered awareness. She’s boldly in control, speaking up, not with a shout, but a composed delivery. Van Etten has grown beyond the meek tempos spiked with heated bursts of frustration and unrest. Yes, those movements served to be genuine and intimate powers of Van Etten’s previous albums. However, the empowering, polished charms of the tradeoff are impossible to not fall in love with. As she earnestly directs in “You Know Me Well,” “Turn into yourself again and reach on out to become your true self.” The new songs and style, though a departure from her more stripped-down early albums, are no less pure or authentic than what those earlier songs achieved.
As with Tramp, the production on Are We There takes some new routes. “Our Love” is unlike any song Van Etten has made before. Enter a sexy, chill tempo, drum-machine beat and a lone hollowing guitar strum. It’s the love child of Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” and Phil Collin’s “In The Air Tonight.” Van Etten mindfully grounds the shakeup, singing, “You say I am genuine, I see your backhand again.” It’s a bold direction for the singer-songwriter, but she pulls it off, resulting in an original and infectious tune.
On only her fourth album, and just five years after the release of her debut, Van Etten creates Are We There—an effort showcasing the heart and sincerity of her previous albums, but also, introducing the allure and scope of a 90s’ pop diva. Aware, confident and unbounded, Van Etten is running out of limits. If Are We There was a question, then the answer is yes, and with albums this fearless, there is no turning back.