Angel Olsen's new album My Woman breathes life into indie-rock's shallow waters and impresses Nick Triani.
It took me awhile to cotton onto Angel Olsen. Once her second album Burn Your Fire For No Witness (2014) was released it all fell into place for me. I lived with that album for a year. Incessant listening bought me new insights into what was on the face of it: simple, heartfelt songs. My radar was up. It’s no surprise that in the intervening two and a half years Olsen’s star has assuringly risen. But that doesn’t really explain why her new album My Woman has increased the ripple effect to a full blown splash.
“Intern” opens proceedings with the sole synth heavy track on the album. “Doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done/ Still gotta wake up and be someone.” Olsen informs us, this lyrical couplet perhaps offering a snapshot of the themes of My Woman. It’s an album about female empowerment, Olsen pitching her mast on her own terms. On the press release accompanying the album, Olsen comments “…then it’s maybe the complicated mess of being a woman and wanting to stand up for yourself, while also knowing that there are things you are expected … to ignore, almost, for the sake of loving a man. I’m not trying to make a feminist statement with every single record, just because I’m a woman. But I do feel like there are some themes that relate to that, without it being the complete picture.”
When Olsen’s voice takes off, as it often does, it’s transformative and takes the music with it to higher planes.
On first listen I was struck by how amateurish parts of My Woman sounded. What I mean by this is a certain naivete in the playing which is emphasised by a strange mix. But it also equates to a feeling and Olsen’s own role in the balance. Her voice dominates proceedings. My Woman doesn’t present Olsen in a Rihanna/Beyoncé way (vocal up front with a minimalist backdrop) emphasising each breath. But she’s here, in your ear and that explains the playing somewhat – it’s unfussy and detail is spared. It’s easy-going in some ways. When Olsen’s voice takes off, as it often does, it’s transformative and takes the music with it to higher planes.
“Shut Up Kiss Me” relocates that light yet heavy touch The Pixies used to have that they lost sometime after Doolittle. To me, that remains unexplored terrain for guitar music, and My Woman successfully relocates that sound. It’s refreshing that Olsen hasn’t bolstered her music with a weary professionalism, or a tight expression of musical muscle. It leaves room for air and gives her voice the full focus. The temptation to make the drums beefier and guitars crunchier must have been there, but this restraint pays dividends.
“Shut Up Kiss Me” relocates that light yet heavy touch The Pixies used to have that they lost sometime after Doolittle. To me, that remains unexplored terrain for guitar music, and My Woman successfully relocates that sound.
But I digress. That voice. Olsen imbues much with it, able to sound both interested and withdrawn, depending on the song. Roy Orbison springs to mind at times, but drinking from the same well of expression, k.d.Lang also bears comparison. The second half of My Woman takes a turn in mood, away from the earlier energy. Olsen revisits a looser version of Burn Your Fire For No Witness’ dreamscapes on “Heart Shaped Face”, where the space afforded comes at a good time for My Woman. It’s as close to a standard as Olsen offers us, and a skewed one at that. “Sister” keeps the dreaminess alive, whilst briefly exploding into guitar nirvana, without ever sounding masculine. It’s hard to pin a genre on My Woman that would be all inclusive, although the application and tone is of one piece.
As rock music played by white males feels long past its own self-expressive sale by date, Olsen offers new possibilities of what you can create with your basic rock band line up. This is refreshing in its vulnerability, though that feeling is enhanced by Olsen’s own sense of who she is and personality. That’s why this feels special, as you know only Olsen alone could have made this music. We take it for granted that people possess talent when making records in the first place. That presumption is mostly a lie. The constant stream of music we’re afforded nowadays rarely raises the hope that this art form is elevated or feels relevant. The reason My Woman is such an outstanding achievement is because it refuses to give up on well worn materials to create something that feels alive and imaginative. As I navigate through 2016’s music onslaught (it’s unrelenting), this record gave me the opportunity to pause and dream a little longer.
My Woman is out now on Jagjaguwar.