Sharon Van Etten’s latest begins in a moment of tension, but quickly finds catharsis. “Afraid of Nothing” opens with scant piano chords and spindling guitar notes, joined by a bevy of vocals, strings and bass drum. Together, the scattered layers run in place, anxious to resolve themselves until given reprieve to do so about two minutes in.
It’s a fitting start to an album on which Van Etten could have been overwhelmed by the emotion and personality stowed into her lyrics, but instead quickly locks into a coherent and decisive groove.
“Afraid of Nothing” introduces us to “Are We There,” Van Etten’s fourth record and the first on which the full range of her songcraft is represented. Her 2009 debut “Because I Was in Love” is an acoustic folk affair, and follow-up “Epic” plugged in but didn’t necessarily rev up. The 2012 release “Tramp,” however, featured the fiery rock kiss-off “Serpents,” a song which then seemed uncharacteristic but would be an easy fit here alongside stormy numbers like “Your Love is Killing Me” and “You Know Me Well.”
It’s also the Brooklyn singer’s first “headphones” record; that is, one that dictates close listening to fully experience the elements that she has realized into full-fledged love songs. The spectral backing vocals on “Taking Chances,” the juxtaposition and evolution of the percussion on “Your Love is Killing Me," the seemingly ubiquitous but rarely prominent organs throughout: these are subtleties that may not register when blasted on your home sound system. There are also doses of electronic instrumentation buried deep in the mix, indicating that Van Etten is actively albeit timidly expanding her sonic palette.
Lyrically “Are We There” is a love record. But, needless to say, there are two sides of that coin. According to recent accounts, Van Etten is currently in a happy relationship, and songs like "Tarifa," named for the town where Van Etten and her partner shared a vacation, might function as evidence. "Nothing Will Change" postulates but ultimately rejects the idea that "maybe something will change" with a vital relationship. It's a moment of confidence and happiness on a record that conversely features these lines:
Break my legs so I won't walk to you.
Cut my tongue so I can't talk to you.
Burn my skin so I can't feel you.
Stab my eyes so I can't see.
That song, "Your Love is Killing Me," is a standout for Van Etten's stunning and acerbic vocal delivery, akin to the aforementioned "Serpents." It's perhaps the only truly anti-love song here, but it's such a showstopper that Van Etten seems to spend the rest of the record decompressing from it. She does so memorably, shifting between moments of levity ("Every Time the Sun Comes Up" features some explicit non-sequiturs and a giggling fit in the final moments) and compassion (the gorgeous piano ballad "I Know").
The majority of songs on "Are We There" don't seamlessly fit into happy-love and angry-love categories though, and even the seemingly sweet minimalist ballad "Our Love" features the perplexing claim: "We're a half-mast flag in wind." This approach attests to the honesty of Van Etten's work as she eschews both overly fawning and disparaging outlooks on love. Instead, she favors a realism that offers neither answers nor comfort, but reaches out for both.
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