Angel Olsen’s records are most often characterised as heartbreak music – love, loss and loneliness expressed with almost desperate intensity and a directness that has its own poetry. It’s a reasonable take but, as is the case with so many female singer-songwriters, it overlooks her music’s thoughtfulness and ignores Olsen’s agency, as if the artistic decisions she makes always take a back seat to the emotions that inform her songs.
A couple of recent projects alone, though, prove that internal weather systems don’t direct all of Olsen’s creative moves. Two years after the triumph of 2019’s All Mirrors, which saw her teaming up with Jherek Bischoff and John Congleton for a synth-blasted set full of lavish orchestrations and saturnine theatricality, came a covers EP. A move so leftfield it played as almost frivolous, “Aisles” saw Olsen taking on the likes of Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” and (most startlingly) “The Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats. It was, it seems, a way for her to loosen her reputation for unbending conviction. Around the same time, there was a writing and recording hook-up with Sharon Van Etten for “Like I Used To”, a welcome reminder, Olsen said then, of the power of collaboration and the release from expectation it brings.
Her sixth, co-produced by Jonathan Wilson, executes no radical stylistic swerve but neither are its 10 songs of a single type. Rather, they’re a balancing of country – here are echoes of Tammy, Emmylou and Lee Hazlewood – and torch song (kd lang, Roy Orbison), with the odd flourish of cocktail-lounge melancholy (a la Badalamenti) and classic, MGM-style orchestrations. Nor do they rely on the slow-build-to-giddy-headrush dynamic that made All Mirrors so irresistible.
That said, “Go Home” – a towering, burnished beauty where Olsen, her voice swathed in anguish and velveteen reverb, cries “I wanna go home, go back to small things, I don’t belong here, nobody knows me” – would have sat well on that record. Despite a large cast of players, including one-man orchestra Wilson, this is a smaller record than All Mirrors, which may in part be an inverse reaction to the overwhelming nature of its author’s recent life events, but is more likely the fact that she’s settled on a ground between artistic high drama and dark introspection.
The “big time” in question clearly isn’t a reference to household-name success – that’s hardly Olsen’s interest, nor would she be so crass. Rather, it’s how her partner expresses her feeling: “I love you big time.” As a title it both celebrates their relationship and represents Olsen’s newfound liberation, while also describing a period of huge personal upheaval. Though publicly out since last year, she hadn’t declared her queerness to her parents but after she finally did, the couple celebrated with friends. Just three days later, Olsen’s father died; within weeks, she lost her mother, too. All of which suggests a record soaked in grief, but the exultancy of new love and the relief of hard-won selfhood are in play, too.
The set opens with the easy-swinging “All The Good Times” and Olsen’s declaration: “I can’t say that I’m sorry when I don’t feel so wrong anymore”, her truth burning through others’ presumptions, her liberated shrug almost audible over the light brushing of pedal-steel guitar, a murmuring organ and subtle horn punctuations. The title track, co-written with Olsen’s partner, follows right behind, delivering a twangin’, honky-tonk kick with a touch of Kitty Wells, but the mood changes with “Ghost On”, a spangled, waltz-time swoon, heavy on the reverb and regret: “The past is with us, it plays a part/How can we change it?/How do we start?” she wonders. “This Is How It Works”, a fluid, beautifully underplayed standout, sees lapping pedal-steel guitar and Feldman’s keys making light and elegant work of heavy emotions – accepting the inevitability of death and finding the strength to bear grief’s battering. Midway sits the tremulous and hushed “All The Flowers”, which could be Vashti Bunyan, had she spent time in Topanga Canyon.
The album closes on a sweetly romantic note with “Chasing The Sun”. Here, a simple piano coda signifies the shift from darkness to light, Olsen’s soft, cocktail-lounge coo ushering in the Hollywood strings before she notes: “Write a postcard to you when you’re in the other room/I’m just writing to say that I can’t find my clothes/If you’re lookin’ for something to do”. Then, with a sudden vocal leap, Olsen is soaring, her soul, as well as voice, bursting. She sounds dizzy with the realisation that she’s been “having too much fun doing nothing” and finally – in this new chapter at least – “driving away the blues”.