Good morning Constance. 🙂 I hope this post finds your day going well.
There is a young music writer whom I follow, and she is amazing. Thoughtful, passionate, informed, and best of all a point of view uniquely hers that she writes from, so the music she reviews has a larger context than just music. She pulls all things that she writes of into that point of view and it results in my learning something new with every article she writes…about music…about society…about myself.
Check out just a sample of her writing below, and enjoy…savor this young talent who writes with a strength far beyond her years. She keeps this up, she stands to be one of her generations’ awake voices.
THINKING TO PIECES
Sharon Van Etten Takes Triumphant Risks on ‘Are We There’
• May 28, 2014
On her fourth record, the singer-songwriter lets the wounds of her past heal. But the process doesn’t come without pain, and it’s ultimately her willingness to journey those experiences that makes her victorious.
Listening to Sharon Van Etten will empty you out. I can’t make it through her fourth album Are We There without crying. Her initial forays into recording on 2009’s Because I Was In Love and the follow up Epic in 2010 felt like they issued from a woman still wounded, open and raw. Their salve was in their burn—the wound still bleeding. Tramp in 2012 and now her latest, Are We There (Jagjaguwar), feel more subdued, but just because the skin closes over the gaping flesh doesn’t mean that the pain is done. Are We There explores this territory—it’s a finger running over an old scar, wondering how healing can still feel so sore.
There’s a tendency in our culture to keep the broken female artist in a protective case. If they lose their pain, they lose our fascination. Our culture has built an empire of fascination with brokenness while simultaneously pushing the idea that happiness is the constant barometer we should measure ourselves against. That might be the biggest farce of late capitalism, actually—that happiness is the standard instead of a spontaneous, often fleeting state. So, excavating the depths of sadness doesn’t have to be about depression, or some sort of imbalance, as it’s often portrayed. In our current iteration of emotional “health” there’s very little room for the anguishes that life throws at us every day. How are we supposed to process the death, loss, pollution, abuse and violence that develop like wrinkles in our perfect world’s skin? Van Etten helps us cope with the wrinkles.
What would it take for Sharon Van Etten to be afraid of nothing? The album opener “Afraid of Nothing,” arguably the record’s strongest tracks, ponders this. It whirrs through orchestral backing like a carousel, now faster, now slower, as she croons her fears and desires into the ether. There’s no world without fear, but maybe there is one where we’re less afraid to talk to each other about our own terrors. Van Etten is an artist who emerged from an abusive relationship almost because of her art. She tells stories of a former lover from whom she hid her music because he would deride her, and the sense of this is part of what makes her earlier work so engaging: the tentativeness, the hiding, the uncertainty.
On this record, more than ever, we get a sense of her strength—that she sings because she has to—that the songs emerge from her out of necessity. That’s how Are We There differs from her previous work; while Tramp had confidence, it didn’t have quite as much purpose as this release does. It goes gleefully heavy at times like early single “Taking Chances.” The slinky, click-snap beat is a departure from her usual, sparer arrangements, and an electric guitar growls through her decision to vulnerable again. Still, the songs churn with the inconsistencies of human love. We fail at compassion, we’re not empathetic, we can’t change our flaws. The hopeful anguish of “Nothing Will Change” illustrates this: Sharon stretches out the vowel so long on “change,” capturing our desire to be better. Later numbers like “I Know” reveal the inevitable resignation: that we probably won’t be able to.
As Sharon turns her mistakes into songs, the inevitable universality of fucking up, especially in love, hits all of us. For this album she mostly chose to self-produce, ditching the able, incisive production of Aaron Dessner (who worked on Tramp), and the style of the record reflects that. It’s fresher and richer, and the textures of her vocals are highlighted in different ways. Before, Sharon stitched her notes together, spare, but strong like a thread. Here, her vocals feel embroidered, colorful and filled out, creating more intricate images than she’s ever sang before with increased richness. Tracks like “Break Me” are an acknowledgement that the horrors of the past could happen again, and agreement to risk that. That’s why Are We There feels like a victory, it’s the work of a woman who has agreed to the riskiness to love again. She’s not defined by her abuse. Instead, her bravery to engage with that experience and turn it into part of her story has become a better, bolder storyline. This is how you leave victimhood—be willing to risk your full self again, no strings attached, no nagging holdovers
We heard the strength of this woman before—timid tendrils of defiance over the pain—but the focus felt like it was still fixed on the other. Here, even when she’s scathing, she’s the subject. The heartbreaker is song fodder, sure, but it’s Sharon’s emotions that trumpet through tracks like “Your Love Is Killing Me,” the song is about her pain, not her abuser. That difference may seem like minutia, but for those of us who have felt the crippling losses she’s singing of, the power it takes to make that slight shift in focus is endlessly palpable. By singing about her fears Sharon offers the rest of us a sanctuary, respite from the lonely thought that no one else hurts like us, no one else doubts themselves so deeply and completely. “I Love You But I’m Lost” gives rebuttal to the eternal myth of love as identity; you can’t find your center in the other, you never could.
Love, relationships, romance—none of these are a destination, even if they seem to be when we don’t have them. With Van Etten, the journey is more important than the moment you get there. The will to fight is more important than the actual victory. Sharon Van Etten will empty you out, but she won’t leave you empty. Her music fills the listener with a strange dignity, the pride and inevitable strength that comes in acknowledging weaknesses, and soldiering through to the next sunrise anyway. With the dawn, maybe something will change. Or maybe we’re not there yet.