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

By Melanie Broussalian

Indie-rock darling Sharon Van Etten breaks new ground and gets deep in her latest full-length release, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong. She’s made a fruitful career out of turning heartache and nostalgia into grand, cathartic, roll-the-windows-down anthems. This time, though, she’s turning even further inward, and the music matches this intense reflection on motherhood and relationships. Van Etten trades distorted synths that were featured predominantly on her last record, Remind Me Tomorrow, for acoustic guitars and dampened drum beats on the emotional album opener, “Darkness Fades.” Even so, Van Etten’s signature sound carries through in tracks like, “I’ll Try:” a sonic cousin to her hit “Seventeen” in which she dissolves into a sense of helplessness, but not without flashing the bird on the way down.

Some of the songs across the album blend together, but in a way that’s palindromic, not repetitive. The effect is almost hypnotic, creating a sonic vortex that mirrors the Groundhog Day-esque state of mind we’ve collectively experienced over the past few years. “Born,” a sweeping and tragic reflection on an abusive relationship, bleeds into the following track “Headspace,” a heavily distorted, intimate track that follows the narrative through line, pleading with a lover not to turn their back to Van Etten. On the flip, the haunting “Darkish” offers the quietest moment on the album, and the tone immediately switches in the following track, “Mistakes,” which is the most upbeat on the record. While the appeal of navel-gazing quarantine albums continues to lose its shine, Van Etten taps into something sincere and relatable by making her lyrics and reflections somehow deeply personal and esoteric at the same time.

In a frankly post-apocalyptic world where record labels are actively bullying artists to promote their music on TikTok in exchange for release budget (check out the drama between Halsey and Capitol Records), Van Etten made a gutsy move not to release any music from the album prior to the full release, saying she wanted to preserve the magic of listening to a full body of work in its entirety. To me, the gamble pays off, as it’s hard to imagine listening to any of these songs without the narrative and sonic context of the rest of the record. Sharon Van Etten has the rare ability to continually broaden her sound without reinventing the wheel. She grows and shifts but always stays true to the core of her music and songwriting, creating a safe, comforting space for listeners to let go.

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