Facing the end of the world is not easy. In the time between her phenomenal fifth studio album Remind Me Tomorrow and now, Sharon Van Etten has had to do what everyone on earth has had to do: insulate, hideaway, prioritise the most important people in her life, and cling to them tightly. We already heard what the release of getting back out sounded like with her sublime and timely collaboration with Angel Olsen, ‘Like I Used To’, but now we’re getting to hear what the turmoil was like on her new album We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong.
Van Etten eases us in with some familiar acoustic guitar on the album opener ‘Darkness Fades’, and on first listen, you might be fooled into thinking that We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong is actually a pretty optimistic record. There is plenty of longing in Van Etten’s lyrics, but it’s right there in the title: darkness fades. Even if the stars are falling and the world is on fire, there will still be light at some point.
The album then sets about trying to balance the dark and the light with mixed results. ‘Home to Me’ is a heartbreaking ode to Van Etten’s son and the eventual loss that every parent faces when their baby grows up, but it’s immediately undercut by the flighty and slight ‘I’ll Try’. Van Etten really gets down on ‘Anything’, bleakly intoning that “The sun takes everything / It could have been anything / I didn’t feel anything.”
‘Born’ unfurls itself slowly and deliberately, continuously rising in volume and intensity while Van Etten searches for her identity outside of the titles and expectations that are put onto her by others. It takes a little while to get to the heavenly outro, but once it hits, it’s hard not to get swept up in the pure grandeur of the moment. Why we immediately get thrown into the mechanical ‘Headspace’ is beyond me, and it’s one of the many interesting sequencing choices that Van Etten makes on the album.
The biggest release comes towards the end of the record when the twin acoustic-led tracks ‘Come Back’ and ‘Darkish’ lift the mood to finally give the listener a break from the intense death march that is the rest of the album. ‘Come Back’ sprawls out into a majestic ballad, while ‘Darkish’ plays with that light and dark can actually co-exist. The latter is the platonic ideal of what We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong is at its best: genuinely insightful, without walloping you over the head with doom-laden imagery.
That would have been a phenomenal way to end the record, but we get a strange robotic dance party focused on regret in ‘Mistakes’ and another slow-burning lament in ‘Far Away’. It’s stylistically jarring, and on an album where great care was taken to drive home the idea that this is one continuous listening experience, their placement at the end of the record feels weirdly out of place. If Van Etten’s intention was to leave her audience feeling confused, then it’s a job well done, but these two songs should have probably found their place earlier in the tracklisting.
We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong is an album lost to time: it demands close attention, intimate interaction, and a strong understanding of where Van Etten is coming from. While that will make it an essential work for her die-hard fans, it also makes the album a difficult window for anyone new to step into her state of mind. We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong is just too personal, too dark, and too insular for outsiders to try and join in.
When it connects, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong soars, with real meaningful insight into the apocalyptic world that Van Etten has laid out. When it doesn’t, the album can occasionally get bogged down by its own need to turn every song into a strained dirge. The intensity and uncompromising nature of We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong could easily set up the LP as a cult favourite in later years, and in hindsight, it very well could be seen as Van Etten’s bravest album.
At this current moment, however, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong gets a little too caught up in its own preaching and preconceived notions to be the triumph that it could have been. There is undeniable power in the anger and confusion that Van Etten lays out in a raw fashion, but the visceral funeral atmosphere of the album certainly isn’t for everyone. If you’re going through your own kind of personal Hell, then We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong could very well be the balm you’re desperately looking for. If you’re just looking to glide on the beauty of Van Etten’s voice and songwriting, then it’s going to be more of a laboured listen, one that could reward or disappoint in equal measure.