Album Review: Sharon Van Etten - 'We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong'

6 May 2022 | 12:55 pm | Roshan Clerke

"We are encouraged to embrace the mystery, surrendering to disorientation and upheaval."

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Towards the end of her most sombre, ambitious and towering record yet, Sharon Van Etten makes a Seinfeld reference. “I dance like Elaine,” she sings, presumably referring to the little kicks and the thumbs that Julia Louis-Dreyfus throws around at an office party as Elaine Benes. The lyric is from Mistakes, a skyscraper-sized monument to imperfection that emphasises the importance of being present. “Even when I make a mistake, it’s much better that I’m there,” she sings. And that’s what this album is: it’s very there, so much so that it only reveals its nuances gradually, after multiple listens. This challenging quality is perhaps the record’s most divisive and rewarding feature.

We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong was written and produced by Van Etten and Daniel Knowles in her new recording studio, custom built in her family’s Californian home – pictured on the album’s cover, wildfire flames looming over the Sierra Madre mountains in the background. Throughout the ten songs on this record, intended to be listened to in order, all at once, the American songwriter employs her highly-personal writing style to present fragments and impressions of a world rocked by apocalyptic change, pairing these slant images with broad, universal choruses that emerge with a contrasting clarity and immediacy. 

Aside from Darkish, the album’s only quiet moment, the sonic landscape of these songs is designed to evoke a swirling sense of entropy. At times, the effect is breathtaking – such as during Anything, when Van Etten repeatedly sings “I couldn’t feel anything” again and again as the music hurricanes around her. However, while tethering her lyrics to a brooding musical maelstrom does heighten the overall impression of pathos, the resultant obfuscation of her writing risks meaning that an impression is all that remains. Attempts at inferring the esoteric context surrounding some of these songs requires serious scholarship. Instead, we are encouraged to embrace the mystery, surrendering to disorientation and upheaval.

In a time of crisis, presence supersedes language – and Van Etten’s voice remains her most powerful instrument, even when measured against the gothic grandeur of the production. She is transitioning from a singer of words to a singer of sounds, doubling-down on repetition and prolongation. Her delivery of a simple refrain like “Baby, don’t turn your back on me” (Headspace) possesses the command to exponentially elevate the scope and scale of the line so that it reads not just as interpersonal drama, but as synecdoche – as a more general call for intimacy and compassion. Similarly, her stretching of the word “try” (I’ll Try) into eight syllables wrings from it every last drop of perseverance and determination imaginable. At their best, these songs feel like incantations that can will an apocalyptic world into something more coherent and survivable.