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When it feels like the world's ending, Sharon Van Etten still cares

Sharon Van Etten's latest album, <em>We've Been Going About This All Wrong</em>, is tribute to how impossible and necessary it feels to care for each other.
Michael Schmelling
Courtesy of the artist
Sharon Van Etten's latest album, We've Been Going About This All Wrong, is tribute to how impossible and necessary it feels to care for each other.

"It's too much," Sharon Van Etten sings on We've Been Going About This All Wrong, "but I'll try." Well, yes. You don't really need to know the specifics of Van Etten's recent experiences to relate, to understand the coexistence of overwhelming fatigue and resigned commitment she expresses. On her sixth album, much of which was written in the sustained trauma of the past two years, Van Etten is asking herself the same questions we've all been asking: How do we take care of each other when it feels like the world is ending? In the face of climate catastrophe, systemic injustice, a global pandemic or other earth-shattering forces outside our control, does it even seem possible to nurture relationships with ourselves, our families and our communities? Van Etten has long known how to match stories of confusion, hurt or fear with a powerful, surefooted delivery; her songs sound like self-preservation even when they tell of self-doubt. Here, she turns her gaze towards the wreckage and offers a tribute to how impossible and necessary it feels, now and always, to keep investing in our care for each other.

Over the last 13 years, Van Etten's albums have grown in scope from the spare, acoustic sound of her first few releases to the ambitious, bold palette of 2019's Remind Me Tomorrow. That release came after Van Etten took some time away from music; in the preceding years, she wrote a film score, got into acting, went back to school to study psychology and became a mother, all of which inspired that record's fearless, confident sound. Then came some changes that were outside Van Etten's control. She moved her family from New York, where she'd lived for 15 years, to California, just in time for the pandemic to force everyone inside. (She also planned to have a wedding in May of 2020; the pandemic botched that plan, too.) She told NME that the move was motivated by a desire to "learn how to diversify" her music career, so she wouldn't have to be so reliant on touring. Suddenly, touring wasn't even a possibility.

Stuck inside, Van Etten wrote, recorded and produced much of We've Been Going About This All Wrong in her home studio. The album's sound is less adventurous than Remind Me Tomorrow, but sturdier and sonically focused, reflecting the aching anxiety and claustrophobia of the questions she confronts. There's a sense of interiority to these songs: On "Darkness Fades'' and "Anything," she's watching the sunrise after a sleepless night; on "Mistakes," she's dancing at home with her family; she sings to her son directly on "Home To Me" and "Far Away." On several songs, she articulates the strange paradox of domestic partnership during lockdown: never being out of one another's eyesight, but feeling emotionally miles away. "Come back," she howls on one song; "baby, don't turn your back to me," she pleads in another.

Van Etten isn't thinking exclusively within the confines of her home, though. "I'll Try" references the protests during the summer of 2020; in an email to fans, she describes the song as being about the "protection and comfort of the upperclass" and their unkept promises of action. "Born," she says in that email, was inspired by "anger and frustration about the things that haven't changed," including gun violence and climate change. "I wanted to break / Something like an innocent child," she sings, "Walking by fire / Not another bullet in vain." That song builds to an epic crescendo, with Van Etten's wordless voice piercing through layers of drums, strings, synthesizers and guitar. Several songs on the record feature this kind of powerful, emotional build; often on this record, Van Etten moves at an unhurried pace through despair or frustration towards conviction, if not resolution.

Van Etten chose not to put out any singles ahead of We've Been Going About This All Wrong's release. "I still believe in the idea of an album," she told Rolling Stone; she hopes listeners will listen to the record in its entirety to understand the scope of its story. Her album bio calls the decision to release the album this way a "subtle act of control," and given the powerlessness Van Etten confronts across the record, it makes sense. In the face of time, trauma and loss, it's understandable to try to hold more tightly to the things within your grasp — to be painstaking about your work, to be exacting about your vision. Care doesn't just animate the lyrics of these songs, but also the choices Van Etten made in creating and releasing the record. "I tend to think of all art ... as related to care," the writer Maggie Nelson says in her recent book On Freedom, "if 'care' means the patient labor – the aesthetic care – that artistic endeavor demands." The choices to write and record by herself, in her own space, and to release the album as one whole project — these are Van Etten's persistent demonstrations of what it means to care, too.

Despite our best efforts, we can still hit the limits of our care, and We've Been Going About This All Wrong also honors these moments. On the sweeping ballad "Anything," Van Etten describes the numb exhaustion that comes from bearing witness to the world's horrors. "I couldn't feel anything," she repeats wearily, in a song filled with fitful sleep and coping mechanisms. But even that song attests to how our connection to each other can bring us back to reality ("You love him by the stove light in your arms," she sings, a line she says she wrote about a tender moment cooking dinner with her partner). We've Been Going About This All Wrong isn't an album about hopelessness, after all, and in its last few tracks, the balance shifts towards cautious optimism. Van Etten wrote the final song, "Far Away," to remind her son of her love for him when she's out on the road. "I'll be here," she tells him, "not only when you feel long lost" — a reminder that our attention to each other, even when it is all we can offer, is a worthy gift.

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