Sharon van Etten - Our Love
/// by Nikki Volpicelli ///
Simple and scrawled on, the album art for Sharon Van Etten’s newest release Are We There is reminiscent of Elliott Smith’s debut studio album Roman Candle which has meant a lot to me.
Van Etten’s self photograph takes the romantic route, portraying the pseudo-weightlessness felt when hurling your head out of the window of a car moving full speed, feeling only your hair whipping your face, hearing only the trees whizzing past you. Smith’s is a bit less exciting and more deliberate. His subject — an old friend — holds a styrofoam coffee cup through a sea of market day strangers, with nothing but a smile and a wear of ratty clothes. Both free, both careless, both black and white rumpled photographic visions of youth when it feels most alive.
At first, I wanted to draw comparisons to the music that these two artists created, but that was difficult to do. Lyrically, both artists tackle subjects that only a great songwriter can dress up, like loneliness, dependence, fear, and triumph from sorrow. Still, they do so in very different ways, Smith making making mountains from metaphor and Van Etten standing nakedly in the spotlight.
Both are fragile, both are hurt. Their work exists like paintings that have been brushed and smudged and painted over again. A lot of what they write is a built out of mistakes, from their subject matter to beautiful, works-too-well-to-leave-out recording accidents. Smith’s lo-fi recording style provided plenty of room for error, while Van Etten leaves voice bites and joke lyrics in songs like “Every Time the Sun Comes Up.”
Working alongside Stewart Lerman, who’s produced music for St. Vincent, Sufjan Stevens, Loudon Wainwright lll and more, Van Etten was able to demonstrate her ability to co-produce on this fourth studio album, crafting enigmatic temperature changes from track to track. Take “Afraid Of Nothing,” the first of the 11 tracks that make up the album, which starts like a graduation waltz and is quickly hurled over the other edge into an epic demonstration of modern multi-instrumental composition.
“I need you to be afraid of nothing,” she sings as if she’s coaching a kid through a thunderstorm, though at times she sounds like she needs some convincing herself. Similarly, “I Love You But I’m Lost” takes the same cross-cross route, clean, crisp, quiet and almost completely vocally-driven to start and then shapeshifting into a large-scale symphony by curtain close.
It’s not until “I Know,” the second to last song off of Are We There, that Van Etten shows us what it’s like to be alone with only her voice and piano keys. Undressed. The song creeps in the beginning, like a starched white suit in front of a crowd that’s ready to draw blood.
“Now I turn into a lover on the side/I cannot tell the poet eye apart from mine,” she sings. Here she is, spreading her courage so thick, but as the “lover on the side,” she’s still unable to let go of the feeling that she’s not worthy of harnessing it. “Hold On, Hold On/I want you,” she says, “All I ever wanted was you,” with the pound of piano keys as powerful as Smith’s heartstring-pulling guitar plucking.
For comparison’s sake, both artists have a definite knack for creating music that’s both sterilized and sentimental, clean and spilled all over the floor, but when it comes to actual, real, bare bones songwriting and musicianship, they are worlds apart. Where Van Etten seems more prone to break and bend, Smith stays stiff with pain. In “Drive All Over Town,” he wrote of the “dirty, stepped on” man like it was him. He wrote about a lot of men in a lot of his songs, none of them shiny or clean, none of them identifiable as anyone else but himself.
Worlds apart. Until I look again at those two images again.
Youth can often seem like a Roman Candle — spouting flames of colorfully crafted expressions every which way, witnessing quick glimpses of images that burn away even quicker than they came, experience all of this with a beautiful lack of control.
And in youth, when things don’t seem as fleeting and romantic, it can feel like of a long stretch of road that never seems to end. In youth, when things are bad or just plain boring, it bears the nagging question: Are We There (Yet?)
Both Van Etten with Are We There and Smith with Roman Candle are able to harness this energy in every which way but direct. It’s the little glimpses of the past in ratty clothes and dingy-looking photographs that are worn out on the sides, the self-loathing lyrics, the powerful moments of song construction and visible moments of insecurity that remind us that there’s therapy in taking albums like these and placing them side-by-side in collection and cognizance.
Nikki Volpicelli (@nikkivolp) is a writer based in Philadelphia, PA. She’s contributed stories to the Philadelphia City Paper, WXPN/The Key, Willamette Week and Eleven magazine and rambles daily about new and old/found psych rock on her blog, youngandrested.com.
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