Sharon Van Etten has never claimed to speak for the collective experience, but over time, she’s been lauded as a prophet of indie songwriters. At the very least, she’s an artist that others openly take cues from, even those who’ve been in the industry for much longer (Lucinda Williams) or whose style is markedly different (Shamir). Testimonies from artists like Julien Baker and frequent collaborator Angel Olsen tell the same story; Van Etten is community-oriented with an instinct for forming supportive creative relationships.
It makes sense, then, why the period of isolation caused by the pandemic affected her so deeply, spurring the creative and emotional journey that led to her sixth album. We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong is the story of a process we’ve all had to participate in: tempering our collective sense of doom with gratitude, intimacy, and reflection.
The album cover offers a glimpse at the sort of seismic emotions Van Etten is unraveling here. Behind her, California burns in the distance, scarlet smoke threatening to overtake her home in the background. A thriving tree, dappled with blue flowers, shelters the house under its branches. It’s a representation of the flourishing life she’s cultivated over the years, one that she now shares with her husband and son. In the foreground, Van Etten looks off into the distance donning a short haircut that she hasn’t revisited since the beginning of her career. It’s a moving portrait that juxtaposes personal growth with existential threats no one can control. “I wanted to convey an image of me walking away from it all. Not necessarily brave, not necessarily sad, not necessarily happy…,” she said of the cover. We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong is a project about big feelings, and Van Etten’s sprawling brand of rock is the perfect setting to explore them in.
Sonically, the project is dappled with synth, bellowing guitars, and dynamic manipulation that give the already-rich soundscapes even more color. Van Etten’s usual trademarks are pronounced and pristine: her wailing vocals are stronger than ever, and the “dark drums” that often serve as the backbone of her songs are always satisfying. Harrowing outros and builds give the series of songs a sense of direction.
The songs themselves, however, especially the first few tracks, suffer from a sense of aimlessness; they try to grasp at emotions so unwieldy that they occasionally miss. However, on songs like “Home to Me,” written for Van Etten’s young son, the lack of lyrical specificity adds meaning. “I need my job/Please don’t hold that against me/You are my life/Ooh… don’t that sting?,” she sings to him in plain words that he could understand.
“Headspace” and “Come Back” are two of the strongest tracks on the album that tell similar stories. Gritty and sensual, “Headspace” sees Van Etten yearning for intimacy with her partner in a world where being distracted is much easier than being connected. “Come Back” is a disco-ball-slow-dance track that yearns for the visceral purity of a different, younger time. Both grasp for more color in a world that threatens to go dark.
The two sonic outliers are placed back-to-back near the end of the album. “Darkish” is stark, intimate, and heart wrenching. “It’s not dark, it’s only darkish,” she wails as if she’s trying to convince herself as much as the listener. Although there’s no trademark Van Etten harmony on this song, the concept of harmony is a lyrical motif (“All is harmony/Just once/It’s all/It’s done”). Even if so much of the human experience is harsh, the pain works in conjunction with the joys to create a life that’s rich in meaning. “Mistakes,” on the other hand, is a borderline cheerful anthem about self-redemption (“I dance like Elaine” is one of the more wholesome lyrics in her discography). But bubbling under each track is the same seismic undertone rippling throughout the entire record: no darkness is definite, whether it’s in the world around us or inside our own minds.
Lyrically, Van Etten tends to favor the simple (Even when I make a mistake/It’s much better than that) or the airily nonspecific (Don’t state a direction/Like who my blood won’t save/Anyone on a mission/To fear a life, no love). These two styles can sometimes complement each other, on ___ song, but on others, the storytelling is too amorphous. In fact, if We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong had not been widely publicized as a pandemic-climate-motherhood-anxiety album, its backstory might not feel so obvious.
However, on “Anything,” Van Etten utilizes a lyrical technique that deserves its own mention. “Up the whole night/Underline/Chain smoking, like, no, it ain’t right./Afternoon beer?/Understate/It could’ve been anything,” she sings, imbuing writerly subtext into a simple image. With only two words, she adds a second layer to the song: the perspective of the writer reflecting on which pieces of the story to tell, which to emphasize and which she’s ashamed of. With this alone, Van Etten subtly reminds her listeners she’s a writer to look up to.
Though the record never quite comes into focus, as we all know by now, the emotional process that inspired it never does either. Van Etten is comfortable in her musical language, and experiments with how language and structure can morph her meaning. We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong is yet another addition to the pandemic album lexicon, but it deserves its place. And as Van Etten’s work often does, it will undoubtedly influence other writers in ways we don’t know yet.