Angel Olsen exposes the underground
Mike Donovan | Wednesday, September 7, 2016
Angel Olsen’s latest release breaks away from the sparse introspection of her earlier records. The album is the 27-year-old songwriter’s attempt to repackage her trademark vulnerability and intimacy with a unique take on pop sensibility.
With her first three studio albums, Olsen drew an honest and unadorned map of her headspace. On “Strange Cacti” and “Half Way Home,” she delivered stimulating but vague musings about the mental journeys of an introvert over restrained and largely traditional folk arrangements. Her fuzzy, garage-inspired third LP, “Burn Your Fire for No Witness,” displayed a considerably more dynamic feel, but, at its core, the album was still a bare-bones, underground work.
On “My Woman,” however, Olsen embarks on an instrumental and stylistic pursuit that reaches a magnitude far exceeding anything she has previously done. The album has the energy and refinement of an enlightened pop production while still retaining a do-it-yourself ethos. If Olsen’s earlier work describes her introversion on a personal level, then “My Woman” encapsulates her efforts to reconcile that introversion with the social mess of the outside world.
“Intern,” a synth pop track in the vein of 80s indie giants Joy Division and New Order, offers a brooding and atmospheric introduction to the album. The song serves both as a statement of purpose and acknowledgment of failure. “I just want to be alive, make something real,” Olsen sings in her distinctively wispy voice. Then, just seconds later she concedes, “Something in the work will make a fool of you.” This conflict of ideas, the dichotomy of ambition and failure, emerges many times over the album. In one respect, Olsen uses this theme as a lyrical vehicle for dealing with the harsh complexities of love and relationships. On another level, though, Olsen’s fascination with the ambition–failure dynamic reflects her own aspiration and fears as she strives for authenticity in her work.
Structurally, “My Woman” has two distinct personalities. With its overdriven power chord progressions and pulsing rhythm sections, the A-side has a refreshingly positive vibe. “Never Be Mine,” “Shut Up Kiss Me” and “Give it Up” each take the fuzz-folk aesthetic of “Burn Your Fire for No Witness” and make it more palatable and upbeat. The songs pacify the pungent grit of Americana with the airy simplicity of twee pop. Underneath the vibrant buzz, Olsen weaves an equally assertive collection of sentiments. She forgoes an instrumental prelude on her signature track, “Shut Up Kiss Me.” Instead, without wasting a measure, she declares, “I ain’t hanging up this time / I ain’t giving up tonight.” Olsen demands progress in her emotional and musical life. The pounding sonic structures of the A-side embody this desire.
The second half of “My Woman” sees an abrupt paradigm shift. Olsen returns to the realm of introspection and sets her sights on ambition’s less favorable counterpart, failure. “Sister,” a rambling, reverb-heavy track clocking in at nearly eight minutes, epitomizes the spirit of the B-side. Evolving from a simple, dark guitar hook in the style of The Velvet Underground to an imposing folk rock cascade reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac, the track is a meditation on decay. The song’s mantra of “All my life I thought I’d change” suggests ambition may just be futile and defeat inevitable. Olsen does offer one last thread of solace with “Pops.” The scant and somber interplay between the piano and vocals resurrect the Olsen of “Strange Cacti.” A melancholy reflection on a decimated relationship, “Pops” is the naked definition of Olsen’s original ethos.
Angel Olsen proves with her newest record that the pursuit of pop sensibility does not always equate to selling out. A passionate commentary on honesty, creative ambition and self-awareness, “My Woman” welcomes mainstream listeners to a previously exclusive underground club.
If You Like: Sharon Van Etten, Courtney Barnett, Julia Holter
Favorite Tracks: “Pops,” “Give It Up,” “Intern”