Are We There, the new album from Sharon Van Etten, is best appreciated in bits and pieces. To listen to the whole thing is to drown in its relentless focus on a world of sorrow, misery, and punishment. Even “Every Time The Sun Comes Up,” the album’s final track and Van Etten’s version of a singalong good-time song, is balanced on Van Etten and a chorus intoning, “Every time the sun comes up, I’m in trouble” over and over along a melodic line that largely doesn’t vary from the mean. Are We There is a punishing epic of an album, intense and bruised and haunted, staring at listeners from out of a dark corner and daring them to come closer. It’s a dark drone. It’s also one of the best albums of the year so far, even if the only way to get through it is sometimes to step away and then come back.
Are We There makes perfect use of Van Etten’s voice, which often lands just sharp or flat of the actual pitch in order to create something like a moth hurtling itself at a light bulb. The songs swoop and dive, but the choruses usually return to a singular melodic motif or idea to ground everything around them. These songs are about the wounded who have lost all ability to escape their own wounds, people who find themselves trapped in past slights and relationships that crumbled to the detriment of all else. Their spokeswoman is likely the Van Etten who sings the album’s best song, “Your Love Is Killing Me,” a woman so destroyed by a lover that she threatens to break her legs so she cannot run to them, to cut her tongue so she cannot talk to them, and far, far worse. It’s an open, confrontational howl, but there’s also a sense of the lover’s gravitational pull throughout. The lover is inescapable; they may not be worth escaping. Are We There is full of figures like that—occasionally even the singer herself.
Those who haven’t warmed to Van Etten in the past are unlikely to be newly charmed here, but she does offer up several slight twists on her previous work. She makes larger use of wider instrumentation (particularly on “Tarifa”), and she’s much more comfortable with the giant swell of emotion her songs have always possessed (particularly on album opener “Afraid Of Nothing”). Are We There offers an artist in full command of her voice and her instrument, a woman who knows exactly what she wants to offer listeners and who isn’t afraid to accompany the barest streaks of sunlight with thousands of clouds.