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Sharon Van Etten - Afraid of Nothing
on 26 May 2014
It was becoming obvious around the time of Sharon Van Etten's 2010 release "Epic" that we were witnessing the journey of a singer songwriter from obscurity to major league contender. Van Etten's last album "Tramp" verged on magical with songs to tussle with, live with and eventually fall in love with. She has never been shy to share her deepest emotions but on this new album she lays herself bare. "Are we there" represents a troubling emotional crash put to music. It is the story of a relationship wrecked by the demands of career and dark hints of abuse. Instrumentally the album is her most piano based yet and whilst the songs are about hurt they are nevertheless accessible and uniformly great. The opener "Afraid of Nothing" starts with a simple piano note, a lightly chiming guitar and a brilliant vocal from Van Etten. It is great song and draws you back time after time but better is to follow. The real killer track on the album is "Your Love is killing me" a staggering six minutes plus of musical catharsis. It commences with a funereal organ and oozes raw power from the off and what about those lyrics? They are littered with anger and regret not least "When I let you walk over me/You tell me that you like it/You love me as you torture me/You told me that you liked it". Not since "Blood on the Tracks" has a wrecked relationship been charted with such devastating force.
The fireworks, which follow, are not as explosive but there is great music to be discovered. The gentle ballad "Our Love" is almost sweet by comparison, yet even here she confesses that "I'm reliving my own hell / someone throws the ladder down / Still don't know what I have found in our love." After listening to the excellent "I love you but I'm lost" this reviewer now understands why Van Etten is often described as a cross between Joni Mitchell and P J Harvey. Her music touches the deepest theme of heartache yet always has an edge. Van Etten's use of the National's Aaron Dresner as producer adds to this not least on the pounding grandeur of "You know me well" and the aching beauty of the exquisite piano ballad "I Know". Van Etten does end the album on a lighter note with "Every time the sun comes up" where she cheekily questions "People say I'm a one-hit wonder, but what happens when I have two? The track fades out, and captures Van Etten finally breaking into laughter, a fleeting moment of light relief to cap all the preceding drama.
"Are We There," confirms Sharon Van Etten as one of the cream of the crop amongst the current lavish abundance of great American female artists. It is an album about wreckage, the fallout from disintegration and looking back before you move on. It is one of the best records released this year and utterly compelling.