When Sharon Van Etten begs the question, “are we there,” in the title of her fourth studio album, it’s all rather rhetorical. There is no question mark. We’ve all been there. We’ve all felt it. Heartbreak. Disappointment. It’s all there on Van Etten’s latest staggering effort, Are We There. From the cautionary first lines of opening track “Afraid of Nothing,” Van Etten seems intent on letting everyone know that this whole love thing might not be worth it. “You told me the day/that you show me your face/we’d be in trouble for a long time,” she forewarns.
This line, along with the neatly full-circle album closer, “Every Time the Sun Comes Up,” alludes to themes of love and loss, and most importantly the troubling nature of time. For Van Etten, pain is process. She isn’t just in trouble; she’s in trouble “every time the sun comes up.” It’s not just in the souring melodies of album highlight, “Your Love is Killing Me,” – a track that feeds on it’s own melodrama – that the emotion is felt. The very weight of Van Etten’s words seems to add a universalism and humanity to her suffering. When she sings about having “taken my chances on you” she hits all of the right notes, so that, later, when she pleads, “I love you but I’m lost,” you feel as if perhaps those chances were better left untaken.
Van Etten has always thrived on a sense of melancholy when it comes to love songs, but never before has she sounded so cut to the bone – the pain so near. So much in fact, that even as the album drags slightly in its second half, it comes almost as a welcome reprieve. If “Your Love is Killing Me” is the exhausting plea for help then there is a certain calmness in her resignation of “I sing about my love and fear and what it brings/ I know, I know.”
Thusly, Van Etten takes the common tropes of heartbreak and rips them apart in a way that feels every bit like it could be describing that sophomore year girlfriend. Just as easily she puts it all back together as she wryly posits, “People say I’m a one hit wonder/but what happens when I have two?” Just as with the album title, we never get an answer and likely never will. Similarly, such is the case with this troublesome business of love. Only time will tell if you have reached the end of a long road to recovery, but for now every one can take solace in knowing they’re not the only one who has yet wondered if they are there.
- Dylan Guy