Slowly, like an ink drop in water, it seems Sharon Van Etten has been growing and circling around us. From early plaintive albums Epic and Because I Was In Love she’s brought us songs of loss and trust and loss of trust, stripped back to bare bones. Her country intonations so warm, they were accompanied by more of a guitar-to-the-fore sound on 2012’s Tramp. It was an album of high points (‘Serpents’, ‘Give Out’) but still a bit wavering and exploratory. This current release’s un-question-marked title is happily more of an answer and it seems Van Etten has made it to one place, and spun a perfectly cohesive, absorbing album around it.
The cut and thrust of the album is definitely the loss of trust and getting hurt for leaping into the unknown. The musical departure surrounds all this in a cocoon that’s beyond hurt and more in a protective shell, or even living with the pain not reacting against. This lady seems to have scars running deep, but the scar tissue she covers them with is delicate but quite beautiful. Take the opening of ‘Afraid of Nothing’, which is as close to daybreak as you’ll get on a piano. Is this Van Etten laying out her new fearless stall? Sadly “I can’t wait ‘till we’re afraid of nothing” and “I need you to be afraid of nothing” are only hopeful pleas. Hope and resignation.
There’s a build to a mini storm of slow-paced cascades in ‘Your Love is Killing Me’, and the raw drumming style which ultimately pervades the album comes to the fore. You can feel the eddies through the first half swirl in your chest, a cat’s cradle of heartstrings twisting about. You can actually see this happening in her face if you managed to catch her perform ‘I Love You but I’m Lost’ on Jools Holland.
“All the skies are fallin’ and the sun is moving up and down” brings us deep into the second half, only momentary breaks of blue skies before the chilly, starry night of ‘I know’, a piano-only moment of undistilled melancholy. The album closes with a country ballroom slow burner, lifting the tail end of things into more group therapy, than a lonely pursuit. For all the depths it often plumbs, it is a over-archingly beautiful and tender album. There’s much to be said for the variation of songs that twist around the central theme, and far more to be said for this place that Van Etten has arrived at musically. More than the sum of all the previous parts, this is the album that was in her for so long.