In late 2012, nearly a year after the release of Tramp, her acclaimed third album, Sharon Van Etten was summoned to Avatar Studios in Manhattan to record a remake of the 1923 Irving Berlin ballad "What'll I Do." The song was slated to play during episode 36 of HBO's Boardwalk Empire, and Van Etten — 31 and still bathing in the modest indie fame Tramp had afforded — was eager for the exposure.
That excitement lasted right up until she entered Avatar's live room — an impeccable chamber of track lighting and crisscrossing hardwood. Then it withered into dread. "There's a whole orchestra just waiting on me," she recalls. "It was kind of a knee-buckling experience." She spent only an hour at Avatar, singing in a higher register than felt comfortable, unsure of what might become of her work.
Two years (and one terminated relationship) later, Van Etten sounds decidedly in control. Her anxieties, distracting at Avatar (and, at times, on Tramp), now feel like they've been whittled to knife points. Her self-produced fourth album of folky rock, Are We There, is spare and masterful — a collection of near-fatal emotional wounds, chronicled with stark simplicity and deployed for maximum impact. The skills Van Etten brought with her to Tramp — a knack for ruminating on her doubts about love; the occasional flicker of tongue-in-cheek wit ("I washed your dishes / But I shit in your bathroom," she groans on "Every Time the Sun Comes Up") — are still intact. But Are We There feels even more naked. When she plays two nights at the Independent this week, audiences should prepare to be rearranged by the shards of heartbreak Van Etten throws out. They should, in her words, brace for a knee-buckling of their own.
Van Etten, now 33 and way more chipper on the phone than one might expect, insists she didn't mean to sketch Are We There around such stark points. "It wasn't like I planned what I was writing about or had a concept for the album," she says. "From song to song, it documents frustration, and love, and confusion, and loss, and moments of closeness and intimacy."
Some of this intimacy burbles up on "Tarifa," which Van Etten composed in southern Spain after reuniting with her then-boyfriend following six months on tour. "Forget about everyone else / Fall away somehow / To figure it out," she sings with an elastic vibrato. The song stands out for its lush instrumentation (sax, organ, a handful of guitar and vocal tracks) and for its thematic brightness. But if these dynamics call to mind a rosebud yawning open, the rest of the album is like an arsenal of poison darts: stinging mildly at first, then unfurling with debilitating potency.
The deadliest dart would be "Your Love Is Killing Me," an early climax that feels like it was extracted through physical torture. "Cut my tongue so I can't talk to you," Van Etten howls over a snare cadence, her voice sounding like it might inflict tetanus. "Burn my skin so I can't feel you / Stab my eyes so I can't see you."
The song is at once ruthless and gorgeous — perhaps Van Etten's best to date. Yet for its depth of pain, "Your Love Is Killing Me" was actually intended as something smaller — one instant of a relationship's larger splintering. Van Etten wrote it in Paris, shortly after being invited to open for Nick Cave on a U.S. tour. Ecstatic over the opportunity, she phoned the same then-boyfriend who inspired "Tarifa," to ask permission for more time away from their shared home of New York. When he told her he didn't want her to go, "I did it anyway," she says. "And we fought. A lot."
In other words: a long-distance couple's quarrel, set to music and permitted to fester. If that interaction sounds banal — especially as an explanation for the rawest song on an already crippling album — that's because it is. Though Van Etten is a dutiful chronicler of pain and defeat, she's no dramaturge. Her songs are simple accounts of simple feelings; her lyrics, on paper, look more like hurried reminders than revelatory confessions. The chapters of Are We There tend to achieve maximum impact once they've sat long enough to be construed and decoded. This dynamic, she says, cuts both ways. "The songs are just opening up, meaning-wise, to me right now. I'm still analyzing myself."
This reinterpretation — of listeners projecting their own feelings and expectations onto her work — is not unique to Are We There. After completing "What'll I Do" for Boardwalk Empire, she waited several months for HBO to air it, unsure of how it might sound. Finally, in early December, her moment came. She was giddy. She'd called her mother and told her to watch.
Despite — or perhaps because of — Van Etten's discomforts at Avatar, the rendition is beautiful. "What'll I do when you are far away and I am blue?" she sings, her voice polished as porcelain. "What'll I do when I am wondering who is kissing you?"
It's a song fit for a tender love scene, or a montage of fuzzily lit long-distance doting. But the Boardwalk producers evidently heard something different. As the song plays, the character Harrow rampages through a brothel, armed with a sniper rifle, a shotgun, and an array of pistols. He shoots someone in the head, then another in the gut, then another in the eye. Out of this floats Van Etten's voice, both ecstatic and agonized, accompanying the clap of gunfire and the sickening splat of brain matter on stucco.