SHARON VAN ETTEN
We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong (Jagjaguwar/Inertia)
THE LAND ON WHICH SHARON VAN ETTEN operates in this album will be familiar to anyone who’s lived through the biblical weather of the past few months. The sky is low and dark; the day before and the day after are indistinguishable from today in colour, tone or activity; the room to move is limited. And nothing you can do is going to change the hard facts of nature, of location … of life.
We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong is an album of confinement and constraint, of feelings bound. It’s not cold, nor is it barren: there is a rich emotional life here that may be conflicted but is never less than present. However, those feelings don’t always have a clear explanation or a definite direction.
Even when they are palpable, as in Anything and its escalating throb of tension, neither singer nor arrangement cuts you free either to speculate – Are these songs a reflection of her post-natal state? A natural outcome of our societies’ two years of grey survival? An artistic rebound from the personal reflections of her previous record? – or to escape.
The method of delivery compounds these strong emotions, leaning more into synthesisers and piano than guitars, sounds that wash rather than penetrate, drums that expand to fill space; and vocals that spend a lot of their time turned away just enough from you to simultaneously invite and discourage pursuit.
Headspace is pitched somewhere between synth gloom and industrial ennui: like an angry, despairing goth if you’re being judgmental; like a reasoned response to callous indifference if you’re more sympathetic. There’s a bit of Ultravox, a layer of Nine Inch Nails, and a strong dose of someone landing in Berlin in the late ‘70s and making music overlooking the Wall, where the balloons go one way, but the people the other.
Most of all, it quivers with need that borders on anger. “I wanted to feel ageless/I wanted to feel here, here,” she sings, asking/imploring. But the gap between asking and receiving widens with each repetition of “Baby don’t turn your back on me”. If this was a filmclip back in the day you’d see the water on the drums spray up with each smack down of the climax.
Come Back builds like Roy Orbison on an escalator to peak drama. Think of it as In Dreams reconstructed in brick and glass rather than timber and tiles, with the after-effects from emotional vacancy vibrating from within rather than assaulting the exterior. If Orbison trembled with the force of growing realisation encroaching on his psyche, Van Etten begins to harden with the expanding chill.
Something similar happens in Anything, the Spector-ish mix of laden drums and echoey backing vocals creeping, then galloping towards a climax that stops just short of florid but feels at all times weighed down with the inexpressible. Not surprisingly, the next song, Born, is both musically and emotionally the aftermath: slow, swirling like low fog around the half lit voice at the centre, so enveloping that even when brass and Van Etten’s upper register reach out and reach higher, there is not enough energy to break through, only enough to thicken the atmosphere.
The claustrophobia does not prevent breakouts, moments of shout-to-the-sky clarity that can be exclamations of (temporary) freedom or an exhalation before the (temporarily disturbed) darkness reclaims. Or both.
Mistakes comes out of its corner with something that could well be mistaken for jauntiness, a bit of a cocky vamp even. I’ll Try is an indie disco on a night when the resident DJ thinks cutting between Cocteau Twins and The Cure might get the kids out of the corner and at least adjacent to the dance floor.
Those songs prove that the claustrophobia here is not all-encompassing, not without a tear or two in the fabric. But they may also confirm that the sense of walls closing in, the barriers to freeing hope as much as mind, are not external, but rather internal. “It’s only darkish inside of me,” as Van Etten sings.
Have we been going about this all wrong?
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READ MORE: Sharon Van Etten live at the Sydney Opera House reviewed here.