Album Review: Sharon Van Etten kindles fickle hope on “We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong”

Sharon Van Etten

For all intents and purposes, Sharon Van Etten’s sixth studio album We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong is a luminous recounting of the pandemic era. It’s a worn phrase that’s been tossed around a lot recently – the “pandemic” or “quarantine” album – sometimes in ways that beg for definition as even our collective understanding (if we even have one at all) about what the hell happened over the last two years is constantly redefined. But on We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong, the title itself an example of Sharon Van Etten’s brilliant turn of phrases and coy elucidations, the singer/songwriter sorts through the wreckage. 

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Unsurprisingly, Sharon Van Etten opens on a world in dire straits. The album cover itself sees her standing in front of her Los Angeles home, smoke rising from the wildfires that scorched the hills around the city in 2020. But Van Etten is never as eviscerating as when she’s trying to navigate personal strife. On “Home to Me” she offers a soul-shaking attempt to express her difficulty reconciling her career as a musician with being home with her only child.

“Headspace,” a track that carries enough sensual tension worthy of “Eyes Wide Shut,” Van Etten’s intoxicating lulls mesh deliriously (with characteristic potency) against the industrial crank of grizzled riffs and the distant twinkle of shimmering synthesizers. But what starts as an earnest plea for passion – like many of Van Etten’s songs on the album – explodes in finale as desperate demand for connection. “Baby don’t turn your back to me,” she drones into the dizzying collapse. 

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“What we’ve lost in the past two years, and what we’ve gained,” Van Etten described of the album’s inspirations. “The silver linings we were all able to look for as the clouds descended. The closeness I was able to feel with my family in a new place without touring and the ability to settle down for once. Unpack. Meet my neighbors.”

On “Born,” a rapturous crescendo of strings, Van Etten hurdles her ethereal howls into the cosmos, before the rush dissipates – and all you’re left with is the haunting echo of her cries. Then there is “Darkish,” a song that serves as a reminder that Van Etten needs only her voice and a few strums to render devastating poetics upon your heart, poses in despair a common query of the age: “Where will we be when our world is done?”

On “Come Back” Van Etten again pulls back to reflect on the world of the last two years: one seemingly perpetually on fire and falling apart. “Swallowed over the stage / Turning into the rage / Wondering what forced the age towards tomorrow,” she laments. But the song’s refrain and title offer even then glimmers of hope – “Come back / Moments of fire can turn the car on back home,” she lets exhale at the song’s end – if only as a necessity, if only as a lucid means to push us towards tomorrow.

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Van Etten finds other reasons to hope. The album’s penultimate track “Mistake” relishes, via riveting, buzzing electronica that recalls some Remind Me Tomorrow jams like “Comeback Kid,” all her wrong-turns. (Which includes dancing “like Elaine,” which is by far the best Van Etten lyric forever more.) “I’ll Try,” an earnest swirling of subtle electro-pop that both carries with it the sincere altruism echoed throughout the album – and alluded to in its title – but also acknowledges the collective fatigue individuals shoulder even as we try to make things better. 

We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong opens on a world in its twilight. But it’s not the darkness that Van Etten sees on the horizon. If this is a pandemic album it’s one that faithfully runs the gauntlet of anxiety and trauma that many would characterize the era with. But for Van Etten – though at her most heart-breaking she too is soaked in it – it’s still the glint of sunrise she sees on the horizon. And that, like loved ones and all the things that make us persevere to the next day and the day after that, is something to hold onto tightly.

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​​Sharon Van Etten on the album: “These songs were written and / or completed in my new home in Los Angeles. I tracked much of the album while learning my way around the studio with the help of my friends. From a distance. On the phone. With a mask. 6 feet apart… and eventually in the same room together. This collection of songs represents the struggle, just as much as the strength and courage we all found and gave each other during times of weakness and distress.”

Sharon Van Etten will be on tour this summer with stops at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles on July 28 and 29. Visit Sharon Van Etten’s website, Twitter, and Instagram to stay updated on new releases and tour announcements.

Stream Sharon Van Etten’s new album ‘We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong’

Sharon Van Etten tour:
Tue. May 31 – Lisbon, PT @ Aula Magna ^#
Thu. Jun. 2 – Barcelona, ES @ Primavera Sound
Sun. Jun. 5 – München, DE @ Muffathalle ^%
Mon. Jun. 6 – Antwerp, BE @ Openluchttheater Rivierenhof ^%
Tue. Jun. 7 – Hamburg, DE @ Markthalle ^%
Thu. Jun. 9 – Oslo, NE @ Loaded &
Fri. Jun. 10 – Stockholm, SE @ Rosendal, Djurgarden &
Sat. Jun. 11 – Copenhagen, DK @ Syd For Solen &
Mon. Jun. 13 – Berlin, DE @ Metropol ^%
Tue. Jun. 14 – Utrecht, NE @ TivoliVredenberg Grote Zaal ^%
Wed. Jun. 15 – Paris, FR @ La Cigale ^%
Fri. Jun. 17 – London, UK @ O2 Brixton Academy ^%
Sat. Jun. 18 – Birmingham, UK @ O2 Institute ^%
Sun. Jun. 19 – Leeds, UK @ 02 Academy Leeds ^%
Tue. Jun. 21 – Glasgow, UK @ Barrowland ^%
Wed. Jun. 22 – Dublin, IE @ Vicar Street ^%
Thu. Jul. 21 – Vienna, VA @ Wolf Trap Center For the Performing Arts *
Fri. Jul. 22 – Asheville, NC @ Rabbit Rabbit *
Sat. Jul. 23 – Nashville, TN @ Ryman Auditorium *
Mon. Jul. 25 – Austin, TX @ Moody Amphitheater *
Thu. Jul. 28 – Los Angeles, CA @ Greek Theatre *
Fri. Jul. 29 – Los Angeles, CA @ Greek Theatre *
Sat. Jul 30 – Berkeley, CA @ Greek Theatre *
Tu. Aug. 2 – Troutdale, OR @ McMenamins Edgefield Amphitheater *
Wed. Aug. 3 – Redmond, WA @ Marymoor Amphitheater *
Fri. Aug. 5 – Boise, ID @ Idaho Botanical Garden *
Sat. Aug. 6 – Salt Lake City, UT @ Twilight Concert Series *
Sun. Aug. 7 – Denver, CO @ Sculpture Park *
Tue. Aug. 9 – Minneapolis, MN @ Surly Brewing Festival Field *
Wed. Aug 10 – Chicago, IL @ The Salt Shed *
Thu. Aug. 11 – Kalamazoo, MI @ State Theatre – Kalamazoo *
Fri. Aug. 12 – Toronto, ON @ Massey Hall *
Sat. Aug. 13 – Toronto, ON @ Massey Hall *
Mon. Aug. 15 – Shelburne, VT @ The Green at Shelburne Museum *
Tue. Aug. 16 – LaFayette, NY @ Beak & Skiff Apple Orchards *
Thu. Aug. 18 – Boston, MA @ Leader Bank Pavilion *
Fri. Aug. 19 – Philadelphia, PA @ Skyline Stage at The Mann *
Sat. Aug. 20 – New York, NY @ Central Park Summerstage *
Sun. Aug. 21 – New York, NY @ Central Park Summerstage *
 
& = with The National
^ = Darkness Fades Tour
# = with The Weather Station
% = with L’Rain
* = The Wild Hearts Tour with Angel Olsen & Julien Baker
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