Sharon Van Etten bills her sixth full-length album as somewhat of a pivotal artistic step, giving little idea of what fans can expect. For We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong, she elected to release no singles in advance of the album with the explanation that the work should be viewed as one cohesive whole. Van Etten also took on much of the production responsibilities at her recently built home studio. Add that to the pivot into synth pop on 2019’s Remind Me Tomorrow, and the direction of WBGATAW is left largely uncertain.
Despite all that, the album delivers a sturdy and surprisingly uneventful entry into Van Etten’s catalog.
There were hints at where Van Etten was headed: an Elvis Costello cover with Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, a collaboration with likeminded songwriter Angel Olsen, some tracks for a documentary on the creator of Pepe the Frog. There were even a couple Christmas tracks. Most telling may be the two singles, “Used to It” and “Porta,” released leading up to the album’s announcement. None of that is quite in line with WBGATAW, but none of it is really misleading either.
On the 10-track album, Van Etten sets to work merging her spacious, folk-inflected indie rock with the curling synth explorations of her most recent album. She finds much success, delivering a record that plays wholly familiar while simultaneously standing distinct from her other work.
The most driving tracks showcase how the expanded tonal palette augments the musical impact of her songs. “Mistakes,” the hit single that could have been, has a propulsive synth stomp. “Headspace” blends the edge of distorted guitars with the buzz of synths to excellent effect. “I’ll Try” adds delighted synth melodies to what would be a straightforward slice of indie rock otherwise.
The album isn’t really about pop immediacy though, as Van Etten made clear with the all-at-once release. Still, it’s not entirely clear why none of these tracks could stand on their own as singles. Lyrically, Van Etten seems to increasingly avoid both the concrete and the poetic, instead favoring brief phrases or words that are at least easy for her to twist into swooping melodies. Musically, there are no hallmarks of the album as a singular composition—no blended transitions between tracks, no multi-part suites.
But Van Etten’s music does tend to thrive in the album format where slower tempos and gradual, subtle builds have more effect at absorbing a listener in a feeling—and feelings are where she thrives more than richly textured meanings.
That approach has earned Van Etten a dedicated following with serious listeners. The National members are among her earliest and most ardent supporters. A reissue of her first album features Fiona Apple, Lucinda Williams, Courtney Barnett, and others covering her tracks. Thanks to her more omnivorous production on WBGATAW, those mellower tracks bloom to assert themselves more readily.
“Come Back” starts as a barely accompanied acoustic track coaxing back a person, a feeling, a moment, but then launches out, seeming to stretch across miles as Van Etten puts her body into the titular line. “Born” sprawls out similarly, resembling an epic sci-fi soundtrack by its end with Van Etten emoting wordlessly. Closer “Far Away” offers a sense of closure, swirling its vocals into an ’80s-tinged slow-burner while she recites the final mantra “long gone I’ll see you far away.”
In descriptive terms, WBGATAW can sound like a notable departure for Van Etten, but it’s not. Moreso, the album finds a songwriter comfortable and reliable in what she strives to do. The most present element is the voice Van Etten has already established for herself.