Sharon Van Etten first appeared on the national music scene in 2009, with her debut album Because I Was In Love. Her debut was in a fairly conventional singer-songwriter fashion. Armed with nothing much more than an acoustic guitar, a collection of songs about a bad breakup (they were almost too difficult to listen to) and an exquisitely heartbroken voice (hitting notes that reverberated down to the marrow), Van Etten quickly won rave reviews and a cult following. While her follow-up albums maintained an emotionally thematic consistency, they also stretched further and further from those humble folk-laden beginnings, with increasingly ambitious arrangements and instrumental layers.
That trajectory has led to Van Etten’s latest effort, Are We There, easily her finest work to date. The album is full of sweeping, grandiose arrangements that see the musician matching the sound of her record with the emotional intensity of her lyrics for the first time. There’s the psychedelic sprawl of the six-minute-plus “Your Love is Killing Me,” the lilting dream-pop of “Our Love,” the laid-back yet laid-bare soul ballad “Tarifa” and the forlorn indie-rock thunder of “Afraid of Nothing.” Each song seems carefully crafted with a precise sonic milieu.
As stunning as the album is, Van Etten chalks up much of its musical power to a fairly organic process of working with a core group of musicians over an extended period of time. “It wasn’t intentional in the beginning,” she says of the sound of the record. “This was the first time I went into the studio with a band I had been touring with, and we’ve really learned how to communicate over the last few years. This was also the first time I didn’t have to tell people as much what to do because they saw the natural progression of the songs from me writing [them] on the road to me working on [them] in the studio.”
For this album, Van Etten wrote more songs on an Omnichord than a guitar. “I learned to play the Omnichord on [2012’s] Tramp because of the song ‘Magic Chords,’ and it turned into a really great writing tool,” she says. “I started writing on it on tour because you can put headphones on and use a real instrument without bugging the people around you.”
As for the songs themselves, Van Etten stuck with her time-honored approach of writing material deeply entrenched in the most harrowing of confessionals about fear and love, life and relationships. “I don’t know how to write any other way,” she says. “They aren’t even songs when I write them; it’s just my outlet for feeling better. When I hear a melody or there’s a line that I think is relatable, that’s when I share it with people.”
It’s hard to fault this approach — after all, she has received much critical acclaim for her work, and Are We There debuted in the top 40 of the Billboard album chart earlier this year. Van Etten admits to being thrilled at the success but believes it has little to do with her creative process. “I can’t help what I write, I just know what I need to do,” she says. “I put songs out in public when I feel like we’ve done a really good job of finishing a piece, and it’s honest and true. Beyond that, I can’t control how people feel about it.”
WHO: Sharon Van Etten with Tiny Ruins
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Tuesday, Oct. 21, 8 p.m. $14 advance or $16 day of show