Album Review: Sharon Van Etten – We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong

[Jagjaguwar; 2022]

Sharon Van Etten is an acrobat. In addition to being a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, general musical inspiration, she is also a high-wire walker. She’s a dramatist in flight. She’s a human cannonball being launched into a neon-lit night. Van Etten has already proven herself to be one of indie rock’s strongest singer/songwriters, and she has proven, time and again, just how adept she is at creating a sense of wonder, of drama, of flight.

Nowhere has this been more true than on her newest record, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong. Her sixth album since 2009, van Etten co-produced with Daniel Knowles and enlisted Owen Pallett for the string arrangements, and played over 12 different instruments herself, including guitar, various keyboards, percussion, bass, and singing all the vocal parts. Van Etten gives us what is, quite possibly, her strongest album yet. And that sense of breakthrough, of sheer lift, is prevalent right from the start, with the dreamy “Darkness Fades”, which slowly picks up steam as she reaches for the sky. Starting with soft guitar and a pure, unadorned vocal, the track unfurls and stretches its legs out, before arriving at a crest with the soft grandeur of a U2 ballad. It is, in a word, perfect.

That sense of taking off hits again and again throughout the album. Van Etten has always been a strong singer, but she has never sounded quite this in command of her instrument. Even while past barnburners like “Your Love is Killing Me” had her voice kicking up a desert’s worth of sand and stone, on We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong she crafts her own gravitational field. There’s a powerful sincerity and confidence to her vocals throughout the record, as she weaves and bobs around her deceptively simple and emotive melodies, often hitting notes that sounds for a millisecond like they won’t quite work, and then suddenly, they do, as on the final heavenly note of “Darkness Fades”.

There’s a certain catharsis to much of the album that never ceases to be immensely satisfying, like she’s constantly jettisoning the dregs of what she no longer needs, and embracing that which makes her stronger, with a keen sense of emotional honesty and clarity. Nearly every song here could double as the closing track; they often feel that much like a release. “I’ll Try” finds Van Etten repeating the titular phrase in a gorgeous, simple melody over icy synths and big drums. “Anything” gives us a bunch of Van Ettens seething “I couldn’t feel anything!” over a chugging, charging instrumental. “Headspace” has her pleading “Baby don’t turn your back to me!” over a gnarly, dark guitar and synth figure, her voice slowly rising in pitch, beckoning.

The whole record sounds so enormous in a way she’s only hinted at before. Her lyrics across the board often wind up fixating on mantra-like repetitions, but they hold so much power due to the force of their impact, surrounding herself with such yawning, wide-open, feverish landscapes of sound. “Mistakes” almost sounds like it could be a latter-day Metric song, with its skronking electronic swagger and big pop chorus. Even the electronic beats on the album — which sometimes feel a little too homespun, as on “Home to Me” — provide a brittle and strong foundation for her personal discoveries and exorcisms. That track is one she wrote explicitly for her son, begging that he doesn’t hold the fact that her career as a musician, which takes her away from him, against her. It’s a simple sentiment, and yet the song is so pregnant with longing for that affirmation that it becomes all-consuming.

The album does take it down a notch now and then. “Born” has what is possibly one of Van Etten’s lowest vocals ever, singing the slow, long syllables at the very bottom of her range. It’s brooding, and yet there’s an airiness to it that keeps it afloat. Eventually, the song explodes and goes skyward yet again. And “Darkish”, the only song on here that’s just Van Etten and guitar, sounds like a demo recorded at home. (Incidentally, the song seemingly dates back to at least 2015.) A bit muffled, birdsong and traffic in the background — it’s all terribly fragile, and terribly moving, all flitting into and out of minor chords, her crystalline vocals sprawling over the chunky David Roback-like guitar chords. It’s a needed breather amidst the heat, a placid pond amidst mountains.

A few years ago, Van Etten reissued her debut, the stripped back Because I Was in Love. Going back now, that album looks positively quaint in comparison to where she’s found herself in 2022, all metallic and molten crescendos. But even still, there is a throughline from those early recordings to right now. Her voice has never sounded better, and her songs have never sounded more substantial. We’ve watched, in real-time, an artist find her power and repeatedly top herself, basically always reaching some new height. And as We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong closes out on the particularly blissful harmonies of “Far Away”, it’s clear that at least Sharon Van Etten herself has been going about this all right.