Tuesday, June 3, 2014

album review: 'are we there' by sharon van etten

I've gone on the record before stating that the nebulously defined subgenre of 'white guy with acoustic guitar' tends to turn me off. It's not that there isn't some serious talent in that category, but like with all minimalist setups, if every element isn't on point, it's all the more noticeable and glaring. I admit it's a bias - it's a genre that's as old as most music itself - and I can definitely respect the instrumental talent that can be brought to the table, but that's not always what you get with your typical middle-of-the-road adult alternative acts.

So what about white girls with acoustic guitars? Does it bug me as much? Well, as much as the parallel exists and as much as there is some music in that particular genre that turns me off, I'll admit I've been lucky enough to find more singer-songwriters in this vein that I like and who don't exasperate me as much as their male counterparts. Granted, that doesn't mean I don't have my issues here - they can succumb to the same lazy songwriting cliches and tactics as anyone, and they can bore me just as badly.

Fortunately, one of the exceptions has been Sharon Van Etten, an American singer-songwriter who stepped into the indie folk scene with the good but unremarkable Because I Was In Love in 2009. For me, I was immediately struck by the straightforward passion of her vocal delivery - she didn't mince words or was afraid to show real vulnerability, and there were occasional flights of nuance that cropped up in her songwriting. And after the rougher, shorter, more abrasive, and much better record Epic in 2010 and the much more vulnerable album Tramp in 2012, I was intrigued where Sharon would be aiming to take her newest album, especially given her recent tours with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and his reputation for visceral, gripping songwriting. How did that turn out?

Well... eh, it's good and solid, although I'd argue it feels decidedly out-of-place when it comes to modern sensibilities, and not just because Sharon's voice is sounding more and more like Joni Mitchell's. No, this is a record thematically exploring the concepts of waiting and patience, and not just in the various scenarios that are described in the lyrics, but in the composition as well. Thus, we have an album that feels very languid and long, but done so in order to intensify specific emotions associated with said songs. And with few exceptions, it pretty much works, leading to a solid record that I don't quite love but will happily recommend.

So let's get the obvious positives out of the way first, and that starts with Sharon Van Etten. As I've said before, she's a gorgeous singer and has phenomenal vocal ability, both in measured organic control and the ability to deliver a ton of emotion without sinking into melodrama. You can buy her real passion in her voice, and it lends her more dramatic pieces a ton of power. What impressed me most on this record was her emotional range - while she had proven damn effective in sardonic kiss-offs and vulnerability, here she's required to show real simmering anger and she owns it impressively.

And of course the songwriting's good too. Sharon has always had a knack for great, free-flowing meter and using a solid grasp of language to create compelling songs, and she shows a lot of variety in her stories here. Take for instance 'Afraid Of Nothing', where the guy in question hasn't revealed dark secrets about himself, and Sharon is willing to be patient, but at the same time she doesn't want to be insecure about her love and struggles with that constant fear. Perhaps she was scared of the situation that plays out in the excellent 'Your Love Is Killing Me', a song about an abusive relationship where Sharon's more visceral language shows that she'll be taking no more and putting an end to his 'love'. Or maybe she was concerned about the brittle frustration in 'Taking Chances' or the seething resentment on 'You Know Me Well' or the neglect in 'Break Me', even though that song is underscored by the fact that even though she's trying to be nonchalant, she wrote the song about her impatience anyway. That level of self-awareness really is one of the big highlights of the album for me, as it makes songs like 'Nothing Will Change' and 'I Know' all the more heartbreaking - but at the same time, it makes more straightforwardly vulnerable songs like 'I Love You But I'm Lost' come across as a little awkward. And it makes the final track 'Every Time The Sun Comes Up' that seems to endorse taking the long view a little harder to buy, because Sharon's patience really comes across as a mixed blessing - but then again, that might be the point with her final line, 'Every time the sun comes up, I see double'. She sees both possibilities by taking her time, a point that seems more to focus on the little decisions that matter rather than larger gestures.

And for the most part, the music tends to agree with this assumption, as the melodic compositions feel longer and more languid, taking their time to intensify their emotion and tension, to show her patience and ask for ours. And given the most diverse instrumentation on this album yet, there is a fair bit to hold our attention. The steady sharpness of the drums and drum machines on 'Taking Chances', the organ and hollow percussion of 'Your Love Is Killing Me', the booming percussion and growling guitars of 'You Know Me Well', the odd elegance of the synth lines on 'Break Me', and somber, minor-chord heavy piano melody of 'I Know' do a lot I really like, even if I do feel the guitar production could have had a little more sizzle and some of the synth lines could have used a better tone, with the most annoying being on 'Our Love', the low point of the album. Many critics have drawn comparisons to The National, but I wouldn't quite go there, as that band has always been characterized by their propulsive percussion, especially on their last two albums, and forward momentum doesn't seem to really be a priority with this release.

And to a certain extent, that might be the problem. As much as I respect Sharon's themes and compositions and especially her desire to not make a hook-laden record, I do feel she's not exactly playing to her strengths. At her best, she's a songwriter who can use language with sharp edges, and thus I tend to like her compositions that can support that - but when the album chooses to go for less dramatic stakes, it can start to drag and creep into melodrama. As much as those small moments matter all the more, Sharon is the sort of songwriter and composer who could make those moments sound big and matter in a very immediate sense and drive the drama, and when she goes in the opposite direction, it's a jarring fit for her voice and at the worst case is a lot less interesting, at least for me.

But look, in the end this album is solid enough for the themes it is exploring and is frequently beautiful, but at the same time I'm not sure that I see it having a lot of lasting impact for me. That said, I can recognize good songwriting and composition when I hear it, and this album gets a 7/10 and a recommendation from me. As I said, I'm not always the biggest fan of the 'white girl with acoustic guitar' genre, but if you're looking for an act near the top, Sharon Van Etten's definitely one to see, and while I don't think Are We There is as good as Epic, it's definitely worth your time.

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