In the photograph on the cover of Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There, a woman sticks her head out of the driver’s side window of her speeding car. Farmland blurs in the background, and the woman’s hair whips in the wind. We can’t see her face, but the implication is that she’s smiling, possibly even shouting into the wind, fleeing whatever darkness is behind her and looking toward a clear, new horizon—toward what’s next.
The woman in the photograph isn’t Van Etten. It’s a photograph Van Etten took, of her best friend Rebekah Nolan. It captures the women leaving Tennessee for their divergent lives—a fitting image for a record concerned with distance and transition.
“This was one of the last times she and I hung out before I decided to move to New York to pursue music and she moved to Indiana to settle down, have kids and get married,” Van Etten said. “Even though we embarked on two very different paths, we have remained close over the years—and in finding this photo around the time I realized all the songs I was writing seemed to be about similar themes of having a career versus having a life, there was no question in my mind I had to use this photo.”
Are We There—the lack of punctuation is intentional, Van Etten said, because she wanted listeners to “question what [the title] means to them”—documents a life in transition. As Van Etten’s career and profile have grown, so have the demands of the music industry on her time. Van Etten spent a grueling year on the road touring behind her 2012 breakout album, Tramp. She wrote the songs that comprise Are We There largely during stolen moments in green rooms and in the backseats of vans. When she finally returned to Brooklyn, she was physically and emotionally spent, and she promised her boyfriend she would be home for a while. But just a few weeks later, she left for another long tour, this one as an opening act for Nick Cave.
That delicate balancing act—developing a lasting, loving relationship versus the unusual and rigorous demands of being a touring musician—forms the crux of the emotionally naked songs on Are We There.
“I was having an inner struggle of wanting to stay home but pursue my music,” Van Etten said. “I knew my relationship was suffering, but my heart knows I need to perform to feel better. It’s a therapy for me [but] I didn’t realize at the time I was writing about all that.”
Disclosing her darkest moments proves both empowering and unnerving, and Van Etten shows no fear of baring her scars during gripping, personally painful narratives. She acknowledges her subject matter on “Break Me,” noting, “I am writing about him home.” She pleads for strength on the opener “Afraid of Nothing,” the panoramic production of which mirrors the cover photo. But trouble always seems to be lurking in the periphery, and all the longing, frustration, and unease that comes on the road find their way into view. “You say I am genuine/I see your backhand again,” Van Etten coos on “Our Love,” and it’s ambiguous whether the backhand is a slight or a slap. She probes uncertainty on “I Know,” sharing her concern that “now I’ve turned into a lover on the side.” Even the ostensible bright spots are tinged with darkness. “Maybe something will change,” Van Etten wonders at the beginning of “Nothing Will Change,” but the way she sings it—as a resigned sigh—suggests that it probably will not.
No moment, though, is as wrenching as the outstanding, oceanic “Your Love is Killing Me,” where Van Etten pleads for relief from an acidic relationship. “Break my legs so I can’t walk to you/Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you,” her words landing like haymakers. It’s an emotionally devastating song—one Van Etten has to perform every night on tour, re-enacting her overwhelming heartache in dark lounges and ballrooms across the country.
But even when her songs can be emotionally hard to perform, “at the end of the day they are still very cathartic to sing,” Van Etten said. “If I didn’t connect to the song at all, I wouldn’t continue to perform it.”
Van Etten’s songs, then, are her way of sticking her head out of the window of a speeding car and unleashing purgative howls as the landscape sweeps by—even if their outcomes rarely suggest happy endings. “I sing about my fear and love and what it brings,” Van Etten sings on “I Know.” Does she ever.
Sharon Van Etten plays at The Jefferson Theater on October 24.