By: Steve Baltsas
Like most good music, I found Angel Olsen’s 2016 album My Woman by accident. It had been out for more than a year, but its songs sounded much older. “Shut Up Kiss Me” was an angst-inspired fireworks show of 50s rock n’ roll and 80s punk. “Sister,” nearly eight minutes in length, instantly reminded me of “Sara” by Fleetwood Mac, a childhood favorite. The Stevie Nicks-esque vocals and untameable bassline accompanied a lyrical meditation on a brief same-sex attraction.
This kind of introspection is trademark Olsen, who took criticism and ran away with it to a haunted, church-turned-recording studio in the Pacific Northwest. While touring My Woman, Olsen experienced an odd isolation from those around her. She separated from a narcissistic partner, referenced in the destructive opener, “Lark,” with “What about my dreams? / What about the heart? / Trouble from the start.” A plethora of music critics and fans tasked her with writing more subtly anti-Trump content. Time for growth seemed inaccessible.
Olsen looked at the descent into madness trope, adapting it to become a descent into self-reflection. This is the manifestation of an ancient, chauvinistic view that deems insightful women as “crazy.” Zelda Fitzgerald was an infamous exemplifier of this trope. She burned to death in a mental hospital near Olsen’s house.
The title track is addictive clickbait. Its synths mimic reflective light; the strings are deep and epic. The colorless music video features a heaven-bound staircase, mirror demons and Olsen meeting herself as a gloomy, unapologetic monarch.
“Too Easy” is a bouncy, synth-driven delirious attempt to analyze the “bigger picture,” a canned request depressed people are too often ignorantly fed. The reverb on Olsen’s vocals at times replays the phrases back, sounding subliminal. Any attempt at positivity seems to be crawling back into hiding, not wishing to be fleshed out.
The overweight “New Love Cassette” and its violent strings conjure wishes for a toxic love. “Take me” Olsen repeats eerily; the song is distinctive in this way. The lyrics describe how the singer would repair her incapable partner.
Escaping from the grounding sounds of its predecessor, “Spring” begins with a fluttering, Ragtime-tuned piano. Birds and butterflies are easily imaginable taking flight in its dreamy tone. The mellotron and other synths are in bloom, vivacious and colorful. “Spring” is Olsen’s realization that all her friends are now parents and homeowners, taking part in the community. She reaches out for this sense of belonging and is delighted to have found a place for herself. The baroque pop of “Spring” makes it one of the album’s best tracks.
“Summer” is also a revival, galloping out of the unfocused “Tonight.” The latter is built atop a beautiful bed of strings that arrive at the last minute or so, cushioning the simple lyricism. The song attempts to carry the “all will be well” sentiment in the wake of a separation. “Summer” is the background music to a gun duel in the Wild West. Like “Impasse,” it is a furious confrontation which settles and recognizes its own bravery. At its core, “Impasse” is loud and slow, reassuring itself: “I never lost anyone / I’m just livin’ in my head.” The rest of the melody is an exhausting listen. When poured through the strain of “Tonight,” only then does it blossom fully into “Summer.”
The album closes with the most heart-breaking sonic paintings of Olsen’s career; there are enough to fill a museum. “Endgame” marks the end of a human relationship due to an imbalance in love, warmth and communication. Olsen painstakingly searches for relief in her decision to heal. The stark piano-led landscape of the first few minutes is comparable to death. “Endgame” finishes in a jazz universe, becoming a broken cabaret number. It channels the finale of La La Land.
“Chance” is one of the most immaculate and crushing love ballads of this year. A highlight of the piece is its sparkling sea star keyboards, reminiscent of mid-century film scorers Stelvio Cipriani or Philippe Sarde: “All that space in between where we stand / Could be our chance” Olsen pleas.
The album evokes the typical tragedy echoed in those mold-dotted late 60s albums somewhere in your grandparent’s basement. The potency of these kind of torch songs is fully received. They feel like the realization you’re the only one in the house left awake. Another track “All Mirrors,” is absolutely successful where it aims to be. This isn’t necessarily a “walking to class” album, and that might be what we need. With its anchor “Chance” dropping this album to the bottom of the ocean, the music stays with you for a while. It forces you to think about your own darkness in a very uncomfortable way. The music of “All Mirrors” will surely haunt the rest of any listener’s October, maybe even lingering until New Year’s Eve.
A version of this originally appeared in
The Teller November 2019 Issue #8
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