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Sharon Van Etten
Are We There James Skinner , May 23rd, 2014 18:19

Tramp, Sharon Van Etten's 2012 breakthrough, came on like a tightly coiled spring; a flurry of clattering, recriminatory songs that dealt in bitterness and resentment. Not long into the record, though, something came loose, and the tension so evident in its opening salvo was replaced by something big and billowing, typified by the likes of 'Leonard' or 'All I Can': cavernous indie-rock stirrers that she carried with grace and style.

It's in this kind of spirit that its follow-up finds Van Etten from the get-go. 'Afraid Of Nothing' opens Are We There with a slow-build of plangent piano chords, dappled cymbals, backing vocals and strings that pirouette atop each other before the song begins in earnest - and begins to build once more, into something even lovelier than before: a deeply felt sigh that speaks volumes in exasperation and relief.

This is the prevailing sound of the new LP, and it's an excellent fit for the Brooklyn-based, New Jersey-born singer. Her voice is the kind that could make almost anything sound melancholy, but in matching it to songs simultaneously soft and steely, the effect is honestly heartening more than anything else. Even a piano-led ballad entitled 'I Love You But I'm Lost' shines with the promise of a brighter, more fulfilled future.

Because if there's been one constant to be gleaned over Van Etten's discography to date, it's that she hasn't exactly enjoyed an easy ride of it. 'Love More', which closed 2010's Epic LP, is a song that floored me the first time I heard it, its depiction of a relationship that wrought fierce emotional (and, it's implied, physical) abuse on the singer both brave and uncompromising. It is a beautiful, devastating drone, and its sentiments echo throughout Tramp and Are We There. She has often stated that music is her catharsis, and when she reels off a litany of hurt and unease on the aptly-titled 'Your Love Is Killing Me' it resonates with the cumulative power of not only each and every repetition, but songs that long-time followers will be more than familiar with.

But there is more space and sonic playfulness to be found over her latest set; while 'Your Love Is Killing Me' song would have slotted right into Tramp, it's difficult to see where the gossamer sheen of 'Break Me', 'Our Love' or 'Taking Chances' would have been accommodated on any previous release. Significantly, Are We There was assembled with the same band that toured its predecessor for a couple of years, and as such marks the first fully cohesive album Van Etten has put her name to.

Its angles may be softer, its songs slower and more reflective, but the coupling of this newfound cohesiveness with an assured command of melody ensures that the record maintains a power very much its own. 'I Know' is her most striking vocal performance to date - a genuine workout - that takes a typically frank set of lyrics and imbues them with uncommon feeling. 'Tarifa' and 'Nothing Will Change', meanwhile, are further highlights; the former furnishing its loping gait with swooping horns, the latter with creaking woodwind.

'Every Time The Sun Comes Up', the album's closing song, is an odd little thing, an on-the-fly studio experiment that finds Van Etten firing out lines that veer from the memorable to the nonsensical. It feels every bit as playful and light as the preceding 'I Know' is heavy and solemn. It works, though: discernible throughout Are We There is the sense that she is operating with more levity and confidence than ever before, and a song that ends with a joke, a studio outtake and the sound of laughter is the perfect way to see it out.