Sharon Van Etten has become a paragon for the type of stormy, sincere singer-songwriter rock she has perfected over her past half-dozen albums. 13 years into her recording career, Van Etten has now become the type of securely-defined, universally revered artist for a younger generation of songwriters who look up to Van Etten (and her consistent songbook) as a model of integrity and quality. She’s become the type of artist who younger artists, like Vagabon and Shamir, pay tribute to by covering her music to mark the 10th anniversary of her earlier records, and the type of artist who now receives headlines like, “Sharon Van Etten is an Institution Now.”
We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong, her sterling sixth album, doesn’t reinvent or revolutionize that sterling reputation so much as it reaffirms it. That’s not to say the record is a simple retread or victory lap; Producing the record alongside Daniel Knowles, Van Etten seems more committed than ever to gently tweaking and toying with her tried-and-true formula. “Mistakes” more fully explores the dance music flourishes she began playing around with on 2019’s Remind Me Tomorrow. “Headspace,” meanwhile, with its shiny synths and simmering scuzz guitar, finds the singer-songwriter-producer exploring negative space and grandiosity as the song builds towards its eighties arena-rock conclusion: “I wanted to feel ageless!” she sings, “I wanted to feel here!”
Other songs provide classic Van Etten catharsis: On “Anything,” a sleepless night becomes a devastating power ballad anthem about so much more. “Come Back” is a gorgeous iteration of a template the singer has mastered over the years: the small-scaled torch-song that slow-builds into a grand anthem over the course of four minutes (see 2014’s Tarifa”). The album closer “Far Away,” on the other hand, echoes the intimate folk-pop of Taylor Swift and Aaron Dessner’s Folklore, an album whose existence owes a great deal to Van Etten’s influence.
All told, the singer-songwriter’s latest is a testament to her dedication to songcraft and an impressive mid-career statement on restlessness, contentment and everything in between. Despite its winking title, the takeaway couldn’t be more clear: Van Etten has been going about this all right.