Sharon Van Etten’s exquisitely devastating chronicles of love lost have always seemed shockingly personal and intimate, like overhearing the couple sitting next to you at a restaurant breaking up. But the Brooklyn-based folk singer-songwriter’s earlier albums were actually shared visions, consisting of numerous collaborations with a widening series of indie producers and musicians. Greg Weeks (Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Marissa Nadler) helmed her 2009 label debut, “Because I Was in Love,” and The National’s Aaron Dessner produced her 2012 breakthrough “Tramp,” which also featured members of Beirut, The National and Wye Oak and debuted at No. 75 on the Billboard 200.
But for her fourth album, “Are We There,” Van Etten, 33, reportedly wanted to be fully in charge of her own musical confessions. She self-produces for the first time – though she did enlist Grammy-winning producer Stewart Lerman, whom she worked with on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire soundtrack, to co-produce. With his help, Van Etten has crafted the most debilitating, emotionally resonant record of her career.
The liner notes still read like a who’s who of contemplative indie rock – frequent collaborators Adam Granduciel and Dave Hartley of The War on Drugs play guitar and bass, Lower Dens’ Jana Hunter contributes vocal duties and Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater handles organs and the Wurlitzer. But there’s no mistake that Van Etten’s voice is at the helm here. Few others tackle romantic self-flagellation with such unflinching honesty, and she’s at her most punishing yet on “Are We There.” “Break my legs so I won’t walk to you/Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you/Burn my skin so I can’t feel you/Stab my eyes so I can’t see,” she sings crushingly on “Your Love Is Killing Me.”
If it sounds like too much, well, sometimes it is. Van Etten falls hard, and she isn’t afraid to bring everyone else down with her. Anyone who has had their heart broken will recognize the sentiments behind song titles like “I Love You but I’m Lost” and “Nothing Will Change.” Or the arrangements of “Our Love,” with its bittersweet slide guitar and Van Etten’s delicate but determined quaver confessing, “I’m a sinner, I have sinned.” Her openness to letting people in, be they lovers or listeners (and, for that matter, fellow musicians), makes “Are We There” as inviting as it is painful.
Still, there’s a glimmer of hope. For one, Van Etten is much more self-assured. She sings in a clear, rich alto that’s a far cry from the barely there warble and slight acoustic strumming of “Because I Was in Love.” Her voice dips boldly from falsetto to her lowest reaches on songs like “Taking Chances.” She also adds surprising levity in the last few seconds of “Are We There.” After a pause following “Every Time the Sun Comes Up,” Van Etten and a bandmember can be heard breaking into giggles in the studio. “I’m sorry,” she gasps, “my headphones fell off.”
It’s a silly moment, but it gives us a different, equally affecting glimpse of the real Van Etten. After being with her the whole heartbreaking way, it’s good to know she’ll be OK in the end.