One of my favorite live music videos in recent history is this little AV Club ditty featuring Sharon Van Etten doing a Bruce Springsteen cover. Van Etten is a talented balladeer, and the song and setting fit snugly in her wheelhouse. After maybe my 10th viewing of the video, I started to notice the things she had in common with other great performers of constant sorrow like Springsteen. On her new album, Are We There, she summons the sacred “penitential hymn” gravity of Leonard Cohen and the gut-wrenching self-examination of Fiona Apple. These are all big names to bring up when talking about Sharon Van Etten, but listening to the album, I get the sense that she’s angling for that pantheon, consciously or not.
Her last album, 2012’s Tramp was a break out work. Aided by Aaron Dessner (of The National) as producer, Van Etten showed us a rich interior world, a strong album in the tradition of singer-songwriters that feel things more acutely than you or I. On Are We There, Dessner is out of the booth, and Van Etten comes through with something even more memorable. Previously your focus was drawn in to Van Etten’s writing and singing, but here, you start to notice the band around her, too. The bass on “Everytime the Sun Comes Up” and “Taking Chances,” the drum machine on “Our Love,” the glimmering, crystalized guitar on “Break Me” are just as important as Van Etten’s heart-wrenching songs.
And heart-wrenching they are. It would be reductive to just say that this is a “sad album.” It’s like describing van Gogh’s “Starry Night” as “Blue.” It’s not untrue, but it’s reductive. There’s a wide array of shades in there, complexities and strokes. She’s merciless to herself, as in the numinous “I Know,” but that stands in sharp contrast to the drum corp death march in “Your Love Is Killing Me.” Even the album’s only burst of color — “Our Love,” which sounds like pitch perfect mid-90s mellow R&B — is threaded with a victim’s sorrow (“I see your backhand again / I’m a sinner, I have sinned.”)
The blue is gorgeous, and yes, maybe it’s everywhere. But it’s not as dire as it may seem on paper. The darkest depths of Are We There stop short of sound tortured and ill, and depending on your tastes, that will read as a relief or missed opportunity. Van Etten conveys a sense of defeated acceptance, that this is the way things are, and that’s a whole other type of darkness. It’s never explosive or surprising with its epiphanies.
It’s almost lethargic. The aforementioned “I Know” is a slow morning riser, rumbling, getting up, but then sinking back down just when things start getting tense. “I see the ancient melodies come at night / I sing about my fear and love and what it brings,” she sings in a crescendo, but it falls, quickly, with the refrain: “I know, I know.” The whole song cycles like that, build to build to sudden drop to build, and by the 3rd minute you’ve lived someone else’s life.
I always wonder why I look forward to sad music and hopeless melodies. It’s a negative feeling, at least in our culture, and it doesn’t make sense to want to inflict that upon yourself over and over. I imagine it’s the same reason that people eat spicy food, or go on roller coasters, or watch scary movies. It’s pain and fear, but when it comes over you in a truly penetrating way, it shakes you out of the numb grooves of routine, it reminds you that you’re alive.
Justin Pansacola is a writer living in Los Angeles. At the University of California, Riverside he received his degree in Creative Writing, not English, although he has resigned to the fact that no one cares about the difference. You can follow him on Twitter @wordcore. On some nights he looks up at the moon and wonders if you’re looking at the same moon, too.