We've Been Going About This All Wrong
On the cover of Sharon Van Etten’s sixth album We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong, the singer-songwriter gazes into the mid-distance, the sky behind her red-hot from wildfires. The home she stands before is her own in LA, where she witnessed blazing fires up close in 2020 and sheltered with her family during the global pandemic. It is also where We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong was crafted, the album becoming Van Etten’s attempt to make sense of the pandemic years, our unequal world, and the shaky future she’s raising her son into. “Up the whole night/Undefined/Can’t stop thinking ’bout peace and war,” she sings on “Anything,” a soaring ballad on which she also explores the numbness induced by the monotony of the pandemic. But We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong isn’t just about the collective experience of recent events. Here, Van Etten is also a mother assuaging guilt that her career keeps her away from home (“I need my job/Please don’t hold that against me,” she sings to her son on “Home to Me”), a partner trying to keep intimacy alive (“Come Back,” a track reminiscent of Van Etten’s “Like I Used To” collaborator and indie peer Angel Olsen), and a citizen of the world who’ll do what she can to make it a better place: “Let’s go march/I’ll go downtown,” she sings on the shimmering, anthemic “I’ll Try.” There’s much of what you might expect from a Van Etten record: acoustic guitars, lonesome minor-chord vocals, driving drums, and the jagged electro-pop of 2019’s Remind Me Tomorrow (see the hooky “Headspace” or the self-forgiveness anthem “Mistakes”). But despite it being constructed in a shrunken world, this is also an album on which one of America’s foremost singer-songwriters pushes her sound—and voice—to astonishing new heights. That perhaps reaches a peak on “Born,” which begins as a slow-marching piano moment before exploding into a stop-you-in-your-tracks album centerpiece on which Van Etten’s vocals sound not unlike a celestial choir amid swirling synths and cascading, cathartic drums. Like many of this record’s tracks, “Born” is gargantuan and rich, but elsewhere things are more simple. On the raw, delicate “Darkish,” for example, Van Etten includes the birdsong she (and so many of us) heard during lockdown, a poignant reminder of the quietest days of the pandemic. We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong might have been shaped by moments of crisis, but it isn’t colored with despair. Just as something like a smile hovers across her expression on We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong’s cover, optimism breaks through across this record. “Better stay light/I’m looking for a way,” she sings on opener “Darkness Fades,” before offering her ultimate worldview on “Darkish”: “It’s not dark/It’s only darkish.” We’ve been going about this all wrong, Van Etten seems to be saying, but there’s still time for that to change.