Painting pictures with blood.
Sharon Van Etten understands ultraviolence. Lana Del Rey has cultivated an ill-gotten notoriety with her album and song of the same name. But while Del Rey earns groans by shoehorning in an obvious Crystals reference, Van Etten causes deep pain by breathing smoke into troubling imagery with her mournful voice. On her remarkable new album, Are We There, she visits broken relationships, emotional distress, physical abuse and psychological trauma over the course of 11 smoldering torch songs. Ahead of her July 17 show at the UW Memorial Union Terrace, Isthmus sussed out the elements of the album that prove she is the rock 'n' roll Takashi Miike to Del Rey's Uwe Boll.
The centerpiece of Are We There is "Your Love Is Killing Me," a crushing dirge that plows through hazy guitars using pounding keys and martial beats for fuel. On the bridge, Van Etten pleads with her lover to break her legs, cut out her tongue, burn her skin and stab her eyes, all in desperate hope that the damage will keep her from a relationship that's putting her in the grave. She paints the picture with blood, but it's not for shocks; it's so you can feel her hurt.
You can choose how to look at the opening line of "Our Love." "You say I am genuine/I see your backhand again" suggests either a passive insult or something more alarming: an instance of domestic violence. Van Etten knows for sure, but she leaves it open to interpretation, passing along the doubt and confusion. It maximizes the sickening feeling without glorifying a horrible act.
Well-placed swears rarely fail to emphasize a point and can slather extra intensity on a situation. Van Etten carefully deploys adult language on Are We There. "I washed your dishes but I shit in your bathroom" falls bluntly upon lumbering album closer "Every Time the Sun Comes Up." It's a funny line illustrating the sour duality of holding tight to an unhealthy relationship, and it's further proof of Van Etten's ability to bring the pain.