Brooklyn singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten has gathered a dedicated following with her delicate and personal music since emerging with her debut album Because I Was In Love in 2009. Winning the adoration of fans, including musicians Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and reaching a larger audience with 2012's break through Tramp, which saw her opening for acts like Nick Cave and St. Vincent, Sharon Van Etten Returns with her fourth album Are We There and seems set to keep building upon her successes as she continues to refine her confessional style of songwriting.
Like the title and picture on the Are We There's cover, the album evokes a road trip with close friends, with plenty of space for laid back contemplation where daydreams and past mistakes find their way into the mind as you gaze out of windows. And like a journey, you move forward, whilst having space to reflect. In that respect this might be Sharon Van Etten's most personal and honest album yet, and that is from an artist who has already gained a reputation for her intimate song craft, taking a step back from the larger sound of Tramp, produced by Aaron Dessner of The National.
Her albums have always brought together a host of talented musicians. This time she has gathered Torres' Mackenzie Scott, Peter Borderick, Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg as well as borrowing Dave Hartley and Adam Granduciel from The War on Drugs to make up her band. After meeting putting together music for the HBO show Boardwalk Empire, Etten brought in Stewart Lerman to co-produce the album with his natural and unfussy style giving lots of space for Etten's voice to lead.
Taking Chances brings in The War On Drugs penchant for drum machines but it's Etten's voice and use of harmony that is the real strong point here. It allows here to have a depth and delivery that is all her own and it really helps that the song provides one of the albums best choruses with scuffled up guitars and keys adding some bite to the otherwise laid back beat. The stark and violent imagery of Your Love is Killing Me makes for one of Etten's most powerful songs to date. The lyrics 'Burn my skin so I can't feel you/Stab my eyes so I can't see' conjure suffering as her voice is outright defiant with drum rolls and soaring guitars backing her to an effect that feels emotionally cathartic.
Our Love, which follows Your Love is Killing Me, sounds a bit too light and breezy, just drifting by never really leaving it's mark. I Love You But I'm Lost leads with a piano and the kind of soul searching themes that Etten can make feel so relatable and Tarifa, named after a small Spanish town, continues to conjure up the ideas of isolation and introspection but backed by shining horns it feels bigger and brighter turn. Near the end of the album Break Me stands out with it's 6/4 drum rhythm and chiming Robin Guthrie guitars give it a dream pop feel that really complements Etten's layered vocals. Are We There closes with the sun-kissed americana of Every Time The Sun Comes Up, ending the album on a lighter note with it's lyrics bringing to mind youthful abandon as it sounds like all the albums collaborators join in on the chorus of 'Every time the sun comes up I'm in trouble'.
On Are We There, Etten is thoughtful and hopeful, introspective and confident. At times it feels so personal she is opening herself completely to the listener and musically she matches it with her most focused songwriting. At points the deeply personal lyrics make it feel like it's just you that she has chosen to share and confide in. Whilst it doesn't reach the same big high points as Tramp, Are We There still makes for an engrossing journey with one of the best singer songwriters around right now.