The Hard-Won Opus: Are We There Glimpses at Sharon Van Etten's Growing Pains

Dusdin Condren
Moving on: Sharon Van Etten
When your muses and your demons spring from the same passion, you've got two choices: give in or grit your teeth. You cut your losses with one in favor of the other, or you hold your ground and pray that you're the one still standing at the end of the war between the two.

Sharon Van Etten chose the latter approach with Are We There. She's not only standing, but towering above the conflicts and obstacles that had previously shackled the strength of her own voice. Ballad by ballad, beneath a spotlight on a nightly basis, she's emotionally excavating the toughest songs she's ever written. Or at least that's what she's prepared to do, anyway.

"I'm looking forward to focusing on working to keep my mind off my heart a little bit," she says, her fingertips skating the rim of a wine glass at a West Village tapas bar. "I feel like I won't really fully understand the depths of the songs until I tour [Are We There] and sing it and live it for a while. In a way, it's like going to therapy every day. I know when I wrote them and why I wrote them, but the depth behind each song is something I'm going to be exploring every night."

It's the week before the Are We There tour begins, her first stretch of dates since she brought the bare bones of the album to the studio months ago. The adventure is one she's been looking forward to for weeks, despite the turmoil she had to weather to get here. Are We There details the dissolution of Van Etten's decade-long relationship, which suffered from the year and a half she spent on the road in support of her last, across-the-board adored record, Tramp. Brilliant, raw, and brutally honest, Tramp, which was produced by The National's Aaron Dessner, merely signifies Van Etten's spreading comfort level as a songwriter honing her voice when compared to the clarity and courage coursing through Are We There.

"Every album is a chapter of my life, you know?" she says. "I really don't have any perspective on these songs right now. I know they're going to be hard. Heather [Woods Broderick, backup vocalist and keyboards] even told me, 'I'm so glad I don't have to sing on "Your Love Is Killing Me" very much, because that song is so fucking intense.' She was there when I was writing it; it was one or two in the morning, and I just had to write this."

We can imagine Van Etten's face, illuminated by the glow of a computer screen, as she reads an email from her boyfriend begging her to stay home instead of leaving for another month to tour with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. We can then picture her going to wake Broderick up in the middle of the night to finish the resulting refrains of "Your Love Is Killing Me." We feel a fleeting warmth for her when she reveals that the progressions of "Tarifa" were written while she was basking in the bliss of the southern coast of Spain with her then-love on a rare vacation, and that she hasn't seen him that happy since.

We don't question her pain, her outrage, her resentment, or her determination when it becomes clear that she was forced to choose between a life that muted her flourishing talent and the possibilities presented by her music. We believe her because the scenes she invokes are so tangible, so sharp and merciless, that her revelations fueling the din are too sincere to doubt.

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