One of America’s finest songwriters designs a collection of songs to be listened to all at once
For her sixth album, it seems like Sharon Van Etten has decided to skip the usual circus associated with new releases. We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong is released with no real fanfare, no advance tracks (the two songs she released last year, Porta and Used To It, do not feature here), and she’s been talking it up as a collection of songs that “are designed to be listened to in order, all at once, so that a much larger story of hope, loss, longing and resilience can be told”. Maybe, in the streaming age, we really have been going about this all wrong.
There’s a darker tone on display than on her previous album Remind Me Tomorrow, which saw Van Etten fully embrace an electro-sound. That synth-heavy atmosphere is still present on We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong, but the palette seems bleaker, with a big emphasis on slow-building, almost portentous sounding anthems.
Darkness Fades does start off quite brightly, a gently picked acoustic providing backing for Van Etten’s voice, before more elaborate orchestration kicks in. It’s the introduction of a sound that comes across as pretty huge – songs like I’ll Try are destined to be turned up loud to sway along to, despite not being a typically stadium-sized ballad.
Elsewhere, the sound is more intimate, as befits an album pretty much written and recorded under lockdown conditions. Born is a gorgeously hushed lament which shows off Van Etten’s voice to its very best advantage – almost the perfect cross between her early acoustic days and her more recent forays into electro pop.
Lyrically, she’s as cryptic as ever, but some themes do reappear – uncertainty, fear of failing at motherhood, the constant work needed to stop a relationship falling apart. Home To Me looks at balancing work and life with lines like “I need my job, please don’t hold that against me, you are my life”, while Anything sees her battling against numbness and depression, smoking and drinking in the afternoon because she “couldn’t feel anything”. Musically, the latter is the song most reminiscent of her finest work, Are We There.
Although the general tone is quite dark and downbeat, there is the odd big pop anthem too. Headspace has a hypnotic chorus just designed to be bellowed along to, while Mistakes may be one of the most accessible things Van Etten’s ever written: a big bouncy synth anthem that recalls MGMT‘s Time To Pretend, name drops Elaine from Seinfeld and a joyous refrain of “even when I make a mistake, it’s brilliant”.
Some people may find the general vibe of the album a bit too dark and oppressive, and it’s true that the likes of Darkish can start to sound a little dirge-ish. However, anyone who has already fallen under the spell of Van Etten will find much to enchant them on We’ve Been Doing This All Wrong. Over the last few years, she’s become one of America’s finest songwriters, and this album shows her continuing that trajectory.