Musicians tend to make a kind of sacrifice in the course of expanding their music to bigger, more dramatic heights. As with all art forms, in reaching for an epic scale, artists may lose the grounded intimacy that they have developed with their audiences. Attempts to convey enormous emotional power can be received as strangely ineffective or cold. This can be especially pronounced when an artist transitions from making stripped-back indie-folk to making stadium-filling, synth-oriented rock. Despite this challenge, Sharon Van Etten has continued the integration of subtle new wave-isms apparent on 2019’s Remind Me Tomorrow. On that record, Van Etten introduced the sound of drum machines and retro synths while maintaining the subtlety and edge of her previous work. Regardless of the instrumental experimentation that surrounded Van Etten, her often double-tracked vocals always felt piercingly personal. On the new record, with a few exceptions, she has applied her clear love for the drama of new wave to almost every facet of the songwriting.
Beginning with “Darkness Fades,” Van Etten introduces this developed sound. Initially, sparse acoustic guitar backs moving declarations of deteriorating relationships. “It’s been a while since I last held you close,” Van Etten sings. However, any trace of the quiet folk of her early work is dissipated as the subdued intro explodes into pummeling drums and swelling synths. By the chorus, we are introduced to a reverb-soaked falsetto reminiscent of Elizabeth Fraser’s indecipherable voice on Heaven or Las Vegas.
Here we see a recurrent characteristic of the record: everything seems huge. Almost all tracks feature moments in which the vocals or instrumentation seem to reverberate out endlessly, occasionally blending into an amorphous wave of sound. This stylistic grandeur brings to mind Angel Olsen’s 2019 release, All Mirrors. Both artists, who are friends and collaborators, aimed for a stratospheric sound, only where Olsen used a 12-piece string section for this effect, Van Etten has opted for the drones of the synthesiser.
This larger sound is reflective of a wider theme Van Etten is addressing. Unlike on Remind Me Tomorrow where the apocalyptic undertones appeared more personal, here they seem both personal and global; individual and collective. On “Anything,” another powerful iteration of the anthemic rock of “Comeback Kid,” when she sings about the moments “before the sun takes everything,” this dynamic is hard to avoid. Elsewhere, the final moments of “Born” pursue an almost cosmological scale.
The grungy industrial tones of “Headspace” feel like a more dramatic version of the previous album’s “Hands.” On the only stripped-back song, “Darkish,” Van Etten’s alternately dulcet and haunting falsetto occasionally resembles a more hopeful variant of the acoustic cuts from Radiohead’s catalogue. Indeed, Thom Yorke would never have uttered a line as comforting as “it’s not dark, it’s only darkish.”
On a record that is so grandiose, there is a refreshing sense of humor on the danceable “Mistakes.“ But there’s also a return to ethereality on the closer, “Far Away,” ending with Van Etten’s reassurance: “I’ll be here. Not only when you feel long lost”. Given the running theme of motherhood, this is perhaps a future reminder to her child. It’s a moving finale, encapsulating the unlikely optimism of the album.
Ultimately, the amount of pleasure one gets from listening to We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong will largely depend on their tolerance for the epic drama and heavy synths of ’80s new wave. Yet the album still carries her characteristic honesty and edge, tying it back to even her sparsest early recordings. Even if some of the intimacy is lost, Van Etten’s grasp for something larger is just as exciting.
Noah Sparkes is a UK-based culture writer specialising in film, TV, and music. With a particular interest in the intersection of culture, politics, and history, Noah has written in a variety of outlets.