I first fell in love when I was 16 and immediately regretted it. Love was sticky and smelled slightly off. It consisted of long, oozing tendrils wrapping themselves around my heart and yanking at inopportune moments. I felt both weightless and claustrophobic in it, buoyed and breathless in love's thick embrace. To fall in love, I discovered, is to be suspended in something resembling my aunt's endearing attempts at bread pudding (a dish, no less, savored by my then girlfriend). By the time I was 17, I realized how thoroughly I had fallen in when I tried to extricate myself from love's mess. Evidently, love, again like my aunt's bread pudding, goes bad. It's even stickier and holds on ever tighter, when it does.

Sharon Van Etten knows this. She has lived this, and she has sung about it. Nowhere are her thoughts more refined, nor her feelings more concentrated, than on her masterful fourth album “Are We There.” It is a sonic tour de force of the daily triumphs and trials of love, a testament to the endurance and occasional idiocy of the human spirit, as well as to the healing powers of the heart. The record does not ask love's burning questions so much as slam them—as stark and question mark-less as its title—on the altar for sacrifice: is there an elegant way for a heart to break, a graceful falling out of love? 

Van Etten has no answers, but in crafting the record she makes the case for something which I have suspected since I was 16 and accidentally belonged to another person. Our turns of phrase are in need of updating—we don't fall in love, so much as stumble into it.

Perhaps it's because our emotional wiring dangles like stubborn shoe laces, perhaps it's because because we're rarely as honest with ourselves as we'd like to think, but love is what happens when we're busy making other plans. Van Etten sings with all the intensity this cruel irony—that our most intimate feelings might only be intelligible in retrospect—inspires. With “Afraid of Nothing,” the album opens with the swirling haze of an arpeggiated guitar grounded by a gentle, melancholic piano line. The effect is the passage of time, as if soundtracking the car on the cover forever whisking by suburban neighborhoods. Van Etten stares out the window, searching for something unseen ahead. She knows she won't find it: “I can't wait 'til we're afraid of nothing.” Waiting for love's confirmation is the wait of a lifetime. Love requires risk and leaps of faith. It is urgent, and will not abide by “a lame 'wait shit out,'” as she chides the song's second person. Love is fickle. It does not come with a eureka.

“Are We There” is not a break up record, though it could function as one. It is more an album about thresholds, the spaces in between lovers, getting mired in the mess. On the show-stopping “Your Love is Killing Me,” Van Etten, in one of the finest vocal performances of the decade, captures the vulnerability of hearts that live outside our chests. She needs the language of violence in order to describe the inner turmoil of a long-distance relationship: “break my legs so I won't run to you” and “stab my eyes so I can't see,” but “steal my soul so I am one with you.” It's easy to forget that the person in charge of your heart is a real human being. The physical force of Van Etten's performance—and the message to “taste blood, everybody needs to feel”—helps to remind us that we are just flesh, even our ex-lovers.

The confusion comes to a fore on “I Love You But I'm Lost.” Even the assuredness of a feeling in the present doesn't guarantee it's longevity. We're all changing (or do we call it growing?) and disappointment is inevitable: “to know somebody in and out, it's a real challenge.” 

How accurate are our representations of each other, and can love endure the transitions from one picture of a person to the next? “You know me well,” she half commands on the next song, but it isn't enough to fill the brick house of a relationship, built without the sides. We might never actually know each other fully, but going through hell together at least offers familiarity. Whether that's enough, to conceive of the significant other with emphasis on the “significant” and downplaying the “other,” is debatable, but it's a start. Relationships work through willing partners, and Van Etten displays such determined compassion as she sings “I will reach you.”

“Are We There” is a difficult album to listen to because it grabs your attention by punching you in the gut. It's hard to relegate it to the background, because it makes whatever you are doing—cooking, doing homework, lounging around on the internet—seem insignificant to the torment of heartbreak. Raw and rich, “Are We There” rewards multiple listens, as it unfolds to the haunting, gravelly quavers of Van Etten's voice. Listening to it is a little bit like falling in love for the first time, stickiness and all.