Sharon Van Etten Gets Everything Right on 'We've Been Going About This All Wrong'
Published May 05, 2022Some people become rock stars overnight. There's a new voice, a new idea (or a stylishly recycled old idea), some effortless take on cool that catapults a nobody to the hallowed realm of somebody as if by magic. For Sharon Van Etten, that process of becoming has been more protracted — not the sudden flash-point brilliance of a shooting star but the steady, deepening expansion of a red giant. More than 10 years on from her debut, We've Been Going About This All Wrong is Sharon Van Etten as supernova.
Around the release of 2019's muscular, synth-streaked Remind Me Tomorrow, Van Etten began tapping into a particularly New Jerseyan brand of big-hearted bravado — punky haircut and leather included. The record's Springsteen-indebted rock shed a sudden and clarifying light on Van Etten's deserved status in the realm of indie rock: she was an institution now.
Co-produced and largely played by herself, We've Been Going About This All Wrong finds Van Etten taking this newfound grandeur to its logical next step, leaning headlong into the enormous gravity that she wields. It's both her loudest record and her most inscrutable, burning away some of the welcoming intimacy of her earlier work for a galaxy of cataclysm and stillness all its own. Opener "Darkness Fades" finds Van Etten in a semi-familiar mode, easing the transition between her past and present on an acoustic lilt before blooming deep purple; towering drums and waves of shimmering distortion carry it away into the night.
Beneath these great swaths of sound, however, Van Etten trades in miniatures, visions of quietude and smallness: "I'm looking at our grass / I'm struggling for words / I'm dreaming of a place / I held close in a state / Darkness fades." She writes in the dust and stars fall, a door closes and darkness overtakes her. Like a play confined to a single set, We've Been Going About This All Wrong finds immensity in confinement; all the coruscating dramas of life playing out in dim hallways and on crumb-dusted kitchen tables.
The record's greatest feat is in Van Etten's refusal to expand (read: dilute) her reach in tandem with the fireworks-and-borealis sonics. If anything, she's ventured further into herself as her music expands outward. Rare, nourishing details still dot the record — on the grooving, whiplashing "Mistakes," she dances like Elaine Benes before being taken at the knees by her attention-hungry baby; over the industrial churn of "Headspace," she attempts seduction in decade-old white briefs. Rather than make a big giant record about big giant ideas, Van Etten highlights life's universe-shaking minutiae, inflating the trials of domesticity and familial love to appropriately epic proportions. On the propulsive, thundering "Anything," she sings "You love him by the stove light in your arms," and that quiet electric glow holds as much vast feeling as a sunrise at cliff's edge.
But because Van Etten is a rock star — one of our best, capable of both a devotion-inducing familiarity and a necessary mystery — the realities of her working life manage to infiltrate We've Been Going About This All Wrong's opalescent bubble. "I need my job / Please don't hold that against me," she sings to her son on "Home to Me" as she leaves his world for another tour, another press junket. "You are my life / Ooh, don't that sting?"
This pained coming and going is integral to the record's dusky vignettes. There on the strange, dreamworld approximation of a cover, Van Etten walks away wrapped tightly in her coat; on "Home to Me," she begs, "Don't turn your back / Don't leave"; on "Headspace," it's "Baby don't turn your back to me," while on "Born" she claims that "There will be no walking back." We've Been Going About This All Wrong is dominated by images of cars disappearing round corners and the backs of heads, of unknown horizons and desperate pleas for return. It makes sense that a record so preoccupied with the makings of a life and home would find such great upheaval in restlessness and leaving. But it also finds a prickly kind of comfort in the knowledge that there is no love like the one being left behind, that rebirth doesn't mean giving everything away, that the journey is always a circle. "Come back / Come back / Moments of fire can turn the car on back home," she sings in a frantic wail on the final chorus of "Come Back." Whether she's the one in the car or on the stoop isn't necessarily clear.
Van Etten's music has long been a protective wing under which to dry oneself and heal. That's no longer really the case. On We've Been Going About This All Wrong, she opens those wings and takes to the sky — rather than protect from the elements, it is the elements, moving earth and water and wind through invigorating force. It finds Van Etten grappling with how to make a home and a life when everything feels royally fucked, when all the old ways have collapsed around you. The trick, as she intones in that sterling, monumental voice — the voice of a rock star, finally and fully arrived — is to create something wholly new. (Jagjaguwar)