Question: What do Zach Condon of Beirut, Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National, Matt Barrick of The Walkmen, Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak and Juliana Barwick have in common?
Answer: They all appeared on Sharon Van Etten’s 2012 album Tramp. It is fair to say that is quite a guest list of indie superstars! It also led to a lot of soul searching and eventually a change of direction for this, her latest album. As she said herself in a recent interview with Drowned In Sound, “one of the things that I learned from touring the album and talking to people was that I got insecure about all the names attached to the record. I started to feel that my actual songwriting was overshadowed by the people that played on the record” her concerns about being taken seriously as an artist in her own right has dominated a lot of the coverage of the new record.
However, she has managed to coincide Are We There’s release in something of a celebrity friends week. Owen Pallet releases the brilliant In Conflict this week also and, whilst he has starting to gain recognition as a songwriter in his own right, you have to wonder if it stings a little that his strings have featured on some of the biggest indie releases of recent years? Yes, he has a modicum of critical acclaim, and a loyal fanbase, but this is the man who arranged the string parts for Arcade Fire’s Funeral and Beirut’s Flying Club Cup. The man who won an Oscar for soundtracking Her, yet if you look at the Wikipedia page, he seems to appear as an after thought to Arcade Fire. Whilst I’m sure he has put away a few pennies and an impressive book of contacts, doesn’t he want his slice of the fame?
Even Neil Young is at it, he is working with the latest super producer de jour Mr Jack White. Whilst I doubt anyone can ever overshadow Neil Young’s name on a release, Mr White could certainly push him close.
So Sharon’s gone it alone…and good for her, but the fact taht Aaron Dessner produced Tramp is just a sleeve note in the brilliant album of songs written by Sharon Van Etten, sung by Sharon Van Etten and for an awful lot of it played by Sharon Van Etten. You can pick good friends, but they can’t do it for you, and perhaps now the people who made her doubt she was anything but a celebrities friend will stand back, applaud and conclude that yes, Miss Van Etten is the real deal.
SHARON VAN ETTEN – ARE WE THERE
The opening line to Sharon Van Etten’s brilliant E.P Epic states “to say the things I want to say to you would be a crime”. I think it is fair to say she has gotten over that fear. Because here on Are We There, her third full length album there is little detail spared, little but the raw honest truth of the matter. It is, similarly to The Twilight Sad’s stunning No one Can Ever Know, a brutal affair. Whilst it shows no musical similarity to that band, the feeling of anger, sadness and emotion on show, feels like this could almost be the opposite side of the same story.
It is well documented that on her previous recordings Van Etten has detailed the difficulties of escaping an abusive relationship, if previously she was telling us how it was, here we find her, for the most part, explaining the difficulties in getting on with your life afterwards.
The exception to that rule lies in the albums longest, and most raw moment Your Love Is Killing Me. Six minutes, of raw pain, thrown out for all to see. “You’ve tasted all my pain” is muttered within the first minute and it only gets more painful from there in. It is a deeply uncomfortable listen, and if the line “burn my skin so I can’t feel you” doesn’t leave you feeling a touch sick you have a stronger constitution than me. There is a great sadness, and whilst anyone from the outside would never understand why someone would stay with someone when they know they “like it, when I let you walk over me.” If this is sounding a little heavy going it is, but it’s also incredibly beautiful. Her voice soars; Sharon has always been a stunning singer, and this is stunning, in the grandiose crescendos she sounds like Anna Calvi, but she covers the quieter moments with the fluid honey-drip of Marissa Nadler. Musically it is all stabbed piano chords, distant echoing percussion and low strung organs that recall Beach House. In the Joy Division biopic Control, Annik Honore interviews the band, she asks Ian if Joy Division’s music is beautiful, his response is one of my favourite lines of the film, and has always stuck with me, “some of it…some of it’s not meant to be beautiful” nobody said music was meant to be an easy ride. This is a stunning example of that theory.
As I stated previously, most of this album is about moving on with your life after the pain. It is about the relationship after, the person who makes you feel again, and how difficult it is to let yourself be with that person. This is spelled out on opening track, Afraid of Nothing. Here, to the soundtrack of a post-rock influenced guitar line and rich warm piano chords we find Sharon, pleading for a leap of faith, a relationship growing stale, “we’d been in trouble for a long time”, she states as the strings gently lift the music towards a sense of the grandiose beauty of Sigur Ros. It all falls to a gentler piano driven section, “we’ve known each other for a long time” and that closeness has bred contempt, it is over and she knows it “you’re a little late, I need you to be afraid of nothing” the strings swirl, as her voice leaps, dances and cracks a little. It is beautiful, and whilst many would accuse the album of being a little too full of these grand emotive moments, to anyone who has been in that stagnant phase of a relationships gradual collapse, it will strike a nerve at almost every turn.
Tarifa recalls Jeff Buckley in its gently lilting guitar intro, gradually giving way to a gentle waltz beat, and the presence of 2014’s most crucial sound, the smoky saxophone. It is a warm drunken sway of a track, and essentially a classic rock song at heart. Etten uses a series of half finished sentences and vagaries to stunning affect to create a feeling of the internal battle of someone who knows going back is bad for them but at the same time “you summon, and I forget about everyone else”, the battle between the devil you know, and the troubles of being all alone. There is a feeling throughout that she can’t quite commit herself to the person, though she knows that they are linked, and connected.
Similarly on Our Love, a Beach House inspired, electric organ led, sleeping beauty of a track, we find her unable to see what she has got, she notes “I still don’t know what I have found in our love” and she can’t see the compliments he throws her “you say I am genuine, I see your backhand again” There is a slight sense of the sunshine breaking through the clouds towards the end as she repeats “our love” over a surprisingly jaunty bass line. It is the little moments, and details that lift so many of these tracks from overly emotional trudges, to something quite stunning.
Etten took the brave decision to self-produce this record, and that bravery shines through elsewhere too. She allows her voice room to breathe and on the piano ballads I Love You But I’m Lost and I Know, she stumbles across a simplistic and beautiful sound. It recalls Angel Olsen’s album from earlier this year, both artists seemingly instilled with the confidence to put themselves down on record, without any fancy tricks of complex arrangements. I Love You But I’m Lost finds her feeling unworthy and incompatible “help me deserve you, sing me praise, you love me but you’ll change” perfectly summarises that feeling of being unworthy further reinforced by the later line “turn me into something great, you know that’s the only way”
Arguably the most compelling musical moment on the album is the closing track. Every Time The Sun Comes Up perfectly summarises how the little flaws in a relationship come to be its eventual downfall. Musically it is stunning, starting off with drums unquestionably borrowed from Be My Baby, there is a low slung bass rumble and a meandering electric guitar line that gently fills the gaps in the stunning vocal delivery. There are perfect little details throughout, keyboards flicker in and out like a gently babbling stream, synths buzz and then disappear, and an acoustic guitar is placed so perfectly in the mix just to give it a gentle lift. It is stunningly produced; what could be so busy is actually utterly compelling, the devil is in the detail. There is an odd little drunken studio outtake tacked on the end, it is a surprisingly light hearted end to an album that is anything but, though it perhaps shows the difficulty in producing a record like this. It is so close to the bone, Sharon admits that she found it very hard to sing, but then this is the person who wrote the stunning track Serpents and refused to play it to anyone for four years.
Her fragile confidence in her own abilities and her own demons is starting to flourish, and there is a real sense that she is growing as an artist. Where once she doubted herself here she seems keen to prove her worth. It is the most complete album of her career so far, stunningly produced, beautifully sung and played and an utterly compelling listen. It is precisely the sort of raw, difficult and emotional piece of work that is utterly vital, and it is brilliant news for everyone that she is starting to realise that.
Are We There is out now on Jagjaguwar. Sharon Van Etten plays Rough Trade East next Wednesday and Koko next Thursday.