Are We There
Some of Are We There, Van Etten’s fourth album, falls – nicely (by the way) – into that Stories From The Sea-era PJ Harvey sound that she has always hinted at. But the big change with Are We There is that before any of that can happen Sharon Van Etten sounds a bit like Heather Nova.
Wait! Wait! Come Back!
Oh alright, I’ll add in Nicole Atkins and Natalie Merchant, since those are also touchstones for both the way the voice soars and the emotional directness of the lyrics – but still, I’m going with Oyster and Storm by Heather Nova; the only two albums I really ever cared about when it comes to Nova’s work. Are We There’s opener, Afraid of Nothing, has that 10,000 Maniacs/Nova/Atkins way of transcending any cheese because the singer is so on, and so in the moment.
This is personal stuff, as always – and Van Etten’s big announcement of an album is full of colours and shapes and styles (actually Nova is evoked again for me on another of the album’s highlights, Our Love) – and it’s possibly draining, actually, the first few times. For it’s on this album that the passion in Van Etten’s voice and the strong ideas (as well as the emotional clarity) in her lyrics are met with (fully) supporting/supportive musical ideas. There’s a softer side here, this is no early Liz Phair-aping act; no lump-her-in-with-Patti Smith snarling, punkish rocker. This is a songwriter offering up her finest works. It’s also Van Etten’s best effort behind the mic – her voice has always been one of her strengths but here, so often across this album, we hear the vulnerability, as well as the power; as well as, finally, some lovely melodic moments to help to frame the lyrics. She’s reached the point where she’s capable of blurring a slightly-naff lyric (just a line or two, mind) with the curl of a musical phrase, with the dedication and conviction in the delivery.
Are We There is often sombre (Break Me), gently stirring (Nothing Will Change) and in the end calmly reassuring (I Know). It also builds on the previous works. Here is an artist standing tall, holding up an album that rests on the shoulders of her previous works. Its head just held high enough so you’ll notice. And what a world there is to discover here. Magnificent.