Sharon Van Etten is in a lot of trouble these days – or at least she thinks she is. She opens and closes her new album, Are We There, lamenting this. In the opening track, she includes her lover/ex lover in this concern, arguing “we’ll be in trouble for a long time” and then in the closing track that opens with the hard, slow thud of a kick drum, she tells us that “every time the sun comes up I’m in trouble”. I think we can all relate to this confession for a period of our lives. She’s in that period right now, or at least she just came out of one, where her vulnerability makes her troublesome.
I have a confession to make before I continue; I did not list this album as one of my favourites from this past year and I should have. I had only just acquired it in December, and listened to it a few times, so it had not revealed itself to me. It is only recently, after many serious listens, that I have fallen in love with this record, if not for its sonic evolution from her last album, Tramp, then for her lyrical nakedness.
I’m not claiming to understand the female condition in a modern world, but I’m pretty sure this album could be argued to epitomize both the strength of the female expression and the extreme powerlessness to a male figure that she is begging to “break [her] legs, so [she] won’t run to [him]” and even wants him to stab her eyes out so she can’t even see him.
Van Etten has a reputation for being rather shy about her music, whether it’s from her musician ex-boyfriend in college who constantly told her she wasn’t good enough, or from the fact that she hasn’t quite reached the success she deserves, which some of her lesser-talented contemporaries have had. Regardless, she is not shy about her feelings on this album – she does not pretend to be strong or sure of herself. When she asks her lover to break her legs, cut out her tongue, burn her skin and stab her eyes out, she is completely abandoning her own agency and asking him to take control. This is a type of vulnerability not many people would admit to and one of the reasons why I feel this is such a great album; it’s honest.
To further the theme of vulnerability, Break Me is blatant about powerlessness behind lyrics such as “he can break me/with one hand to my, head” and “he can make me/move to the city on my knees”, which eerily resembles her sentiment on the older song “Give Out” from Tramp when she explains that “you’re the reason why I’ll move to the city or the reason why I’ll need to leave.”
Our Love peers into the violence of an abusive relationship, whether it is directly related to Van Etten’s experience is unclear, as is her most cryptic song on the album, Tarifa. In Tarifa, it seems she is trying to capture a moment, particularly 7pm one evening where she felt something that was worth remembering. It is vague whether this something is good or bad, but she does give some hints towards a positive feeling when she sings “Everyone else hasn’t a chance/don’t fail me now/open arms rest” and when she wishes it was 7 all night, I assume she is grasping at something inherently good.
And it’s not to say that she doesn’t evoke the odd moment of strength on this record. She declares “I love you but I’m not somebody who takes shots” although this is followed by the image of her recoiling. I think a better example of her strength is her declaration that “I’ve taken my chances on you”. It takes strength to gamble on love and she has, and she’s lost; but she’s stronger for it.
Sonically, this album relies on a more synthesized sound, which is a change from her last album. She has referred to it as her ‘R n B album’ but I don’t feel that vibe. I may need a few more listens to decide if she’s being facetious or not. She is definitely relying more on a piano and a drum set, and less on a guitar, which, in my musical ignorance, may constitute an R n B album.
When I Love You But I’m Lost comes on, she officially spills her guts. This is the peak of her vulnerability on this album. It’s one thing for a beautiful, talented, accomplished woman to say “You love me but you’ll change”, but to go one saying “Help me deserve you” and “Turn me in to something great” is a clear sign that she is writing from a powerless position.
You Know Me Well is a Fiona Apple inspired gem that is haunting and inaccessible at first; it takes a few listens to get a grasp on this song, but when it happens it’s a sure sign of what this songwriter is capable of. It’s clear to me now that this is the strongest song on the album, and one that I will probably play in the future when I want to sample this album but only have time for one tune.
Nothing Will Change hints at missed opportunity for a healthier love, but the contrast between the title and the opening line hoping that ‘maybe something will change’ indicates the very cynical nature from where Van Etten is writing from.
I Know echoes earlier laments for love with some lyrics that are moving and some that are cliché like “our hearts now beat for each other”. I’m pretty sure I wrote that very line for a poetry submission in first year university.
But it is her final confession that erases any doubt about her songwriting. She finishes with a song reminiscent of her last record, Tramp, but with more sophistication and seduction. If you didn’t fall in love with Sharon Van Etten last time around, you will by the time the finale, Every Time the Sun Comes Up, hits your ears.
The tempo of the song suits the closure to this brilliant effort, one that relies on slow honesty and quick wit. The kick drum is back on this last song with the same style of rhythm guitar that dominated her last album – she leaves the synthesizer and piano off of this one. The cadence of syllables punch out a strong metric assault that reinforces the lyrical confidence that we finally get from Van Etten. She gives us a ‘kick ass and take names’ kind of attitude on her very last effort and we love her for it. It makes us think that things are going to be alright with Ms Sharon, although the male voice at the end leaves us in limbo; I guess the whole album does really.
It is difficult to analyze whether we are meant to feel empowered by the honesty exuded in this album or feel devastated that such a talented, beautiful woman could be so destroyed by love.
One thing that I think we can all agree on is that the answer to her inquisitive lyric on the final song: “People say I’m a one hit wonder, but what happens when I have two?” is that we’re happy as hell, and we expect you to have many more. I can’t wait to find out just how many more this talented, young, and possible tortured woman is going to have. I have a feeling she’s just getting started.
I think it’s telling that the last sounds on the album are of her laughing. It could be her way of saying that everything is going to be alright, or possibly that the whole tortured notion of love is worth laughing about. Or maybe the whole thing was a joke. Regardless of the reason for her laughter, it is nice to hear. Maybe we’re meant to remember that she is just a girl after all – one who has her heart broken once in awhile and knows that life goes on.
As a man who will never fully understand the female condition, I have to posit that it doesn’t come down to gender at all – it’s only human to understand how sexy vulnerability is.