There are moments when I receive a promo and find myself anxious about pressing play. I have such high hopes for what lies ahead that I almost prefer to bask in the joyous expectation than find out if I’m going to be delighted or downhearted. Such was the case for both of the remaining albums on this list. ‘Are We There’ came through as a download link late one evening at the end of March and, as a result of that nocturnal delivery, had to wait a few hours before it got its first airing. What I eventually heard left me moist-eyed and strangely delighted. This sounds ludicrous, but I felt rather proud that Sharon Van Etten had built on the breakthrough success of ‘Tramp’ and delivered something so assured, so comfortable, so personal. Some have seemed dismayed at the absence of the raggedy guitar sounds of that previous record, but such hang ups are preventing them from absorbing just what it is that Van Etten has crafted.
‘Are We There’ is a stirring, captivating and enchanting record, which takes its own sweet time. It’s largely self-produced, with only a little guidance from Stewart Lerman who is credited with playing the ‘fun machine’ during the gloriously languid opener ‘Afraid Of Nothing’. The song is, unsurprisingly, not the knees up that such an instrument might suggest, the term seemingly just a curious renaming of an organ. Writhing strings and stately piano carry it along, while the lyrics urge the dropping of insecurities and excuses so that life can be lived. Such is the theme of an album preoccupied with a nine-year on-off relationship which, in the summer of 2013, was elevated by Van Etten being asked to move in. Having previously figured he didn’t care that deeply about her, she was shocked to find a collection of every letter, demo CD, postcard and little trinket she had ever given him. From that pile comes the photo that adorns the cover of the record and so much of the heart of these magical songs.
The staggering ‘Your Love Is Killing Me’ – sample line: “You love me as you torture me” – roams, aches and soars atop a regimented percussive shuffle and an emphatically hammered piano, managing to be both euphorically beautiful and deeply moving. However, there are nimbly shimmering soulful numbers on offer too, the luxurious ‘Nothing Will Change’ being one of the finest. It is pitched firmly between alt-rock and slow-cooked Muscle Shoals soul. The album’s centrepiece, ‘I Love You But I’m Lost’, is a sparsely magical track, with only Heather Woods Broderick offering a little assistance on backing vocals while Van Etten takes care of everything else. The self-doubt in lines like “drive myself crazy with mistakes” is balanced with the resolute refusal to be drawn into emotional battles: “I love you but I’m not somebody who takes shots.” It would be fair to say that Van Etten is somebody who thinks things over rather a lot. Or, as I’ve been labelled in the past, she’s “somebody who overthinks things.” But what art comes from that mulling, eh?
The album ends with arguably its strongest song. ‘Every Time The Sun Comes Up’ has a certain early hours of the morning sparkle and slur to it that is irresistible. The giggling, not entirely uninebriated outtake tacked on the end, where Van Etten struggles to get out the words “sorry, my headphones fell off,” perhaps highlights why the song feels curiously invincible. It, like so much of this album, possesses an intimate warmth that binds you to the music. The varying styles, sounds and even delivery suggest an artist still exploring the skin she lives in. ‘Are We There’ is a strikingly beautiful record to which I kept returning time and again. Whether Van Etten will manage to surpass it remains to be seen, but almost nobody else has managed to this year, at least.