October 23, 2017

Tailgate Society Music Review: Angel Olsen

When writing last week’s review of the Traveling Wilburys Volume 1, much of the focus was on Tom Petty, who had just passed away. In the course of thinking about that Wilburys album and beginning to write that piece, my jumping off point was Jenny Lewis, as I noted. Eventually, I got around to talking about Roy Orbison, as he was obviously an instrumental (no pun intended) part of that supergroup. Along the way, with these intertwined visions of Lewis and Orbison swirling around my head, I remembered a fantastic album, released just over a year ago, by a woman named Angel Olsen.

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If it seems unlikely that an artist could channel two artists as singular as the legendary Roy Orbison and the folk-pop queen Jenny Lewis, then you might just be surprised at all the other jewels you unearth when diving into Angel Olsen’s My Woman. Indeed, it is an album that’s purposefully not easy to pigeonhole with regards to genre, and that is a true reward for listeners.

First track, “Intern,” is a short, haunting opener. Olsen’s sleepily enchanting vocals over immediately draw you in, as she tosses off barstool philosophy over a synth beat. Her lyrics here act as an almost meditational chant to herself, as she says, “Doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done / Still got to wake up and be someone” and “Everyone I know has got their own ideal / I just want to be alive, make something real.” In some ways, these ideas form the basis of My Woman. With most fans expecting a continuation of her folk-rock ways, Olsen shows a confident resolve on this first song, contrasting with the likely unease of fans of her previous work. This song, the first thing that people hear from this new record, stands in fairly stark contradiction to everything that has come before it, and, yet, Olsen sings with a quiet force that shows this is exactly where she should be.

And just as it seems that Angel Olsen has taken a turn towards synth-pop, she turns around with “Never Be Mine,” and takes the listener to the swirling guitar-driven sunny pop of the 1960s. It’s a really great song, especially as Olsen kicks her sparse vocal into gear with the chorus. She’s at her most Jenny Lewis-esque here, although she effectively turns this song into something all her own by the end of it by morphing into something more resembling Karen O fronting Mazzy Star.

“Never Be Mine” rolls confidently into first single “Shut Up Kiss Me,” the catchiest (and most ramshackle) tune on the record.  It’s a love song, with no bullshit: “I ain’t hanging up this time / I ain’t giving up tonight.”  With the brilliantly simple chorus of “shut up kiss me hold me tight,” Olsen jams together assertive commands, giving the recipient of those commands no chance to give things a second thought.  As good as the songwriting and melody are in this song, it’s Olsen’s voice that carries everything.  Her operatic timbre inches into Orbison territory a number of times here, but especially as she approaches the final chorus of the song.  It’s goosebump-inducing.

The next song, “Give It Up,” starts with what appears to be a lost Nirvana guitar riff and continues that vibe throughout. Olsen is a master at crafting vulnerable lyrics that are, at the same time, full of bravado. For instance, she starts this song with a confession:

“Hurts to be around you
I can’t stand to hear your lying
Whenever you’re beside me
A part of me is dying”

This vulnerability is followed with yet another admission, as she tells her lover, in seemingly contradictory fashion, that she’d “give it all up for you.” There is neither apology or shame in that. Only a profession of a particular brand of love.

Finishing out the first half of the album is “Not Gonna Kill You.”  It’s another rocker, although this one is more of the psych-rock, freakout variety. That’s not a bad thing, as Olsen channels Grace Slick singing “White Rabbit,” as she details the type of love that she’s looking for: “A love that never seems to curse or to confine / Will be forever never lost or too defined.” This is a focused examination of what she, as a woman, wants. As with nearly every other place on the record, she is unafraid to express this with assertiveness and urgency.

Reminiscent of 70s album rock, the second half of My Woman shifts into an almost completely different style. “Heart Shaped Face” starts the slowdown, as Olsen’s vocals beautifully slide into an acid-fueled daydream. Over bass lines that meander, Olsen wonders just what a former partner wanted from her: Her specific love or just simple comfort:

“Was it me you were thinking of?
All the time when you thought of me
Or was it your mother?
Or was it your shelter?”

It’s a beautifully rendered song, although more of something to bliss out to rather than rock out to.

Speaking of beautiful, the next song, “Sister,” is downright amazing. Olsen goes all Fleetwood Mac, complete with the most tender and clear vocals on the whole album. Those vocals ride a beguiling guitar riff. I should say here that I have no earthly idea of what this song is about, but that’s fine by me. I listen to it and get swept up. I suggest you do the same.

The follow-up, “Those Were The Days,” is the very definition of finesse. It’s understated in a sort of breathy, lounge-vibe sort of way. Listening to this song after listening to songs 1-5 is a starkly disorienting thing. That, in my opinion, is what makes this album so amazingly strong. I’m not often surprised by music, but Angel Olsen does it here.

Penultimate track “Woman” is an almost eight minute long slow build, haunted with vocals and lyrics that build in intensity throughout before blowing apart epically.

The album closes with “Pops,” a bare bones piano ballad. This song sounds like distilled anguish, which, depending on your comfort with the subject, can either be exhausting or thrilling. Fortunately, Olsen is able to balance such concentrated emotion with beauty, as she has throughout the album. It’s the type of thing that can put the listener on edge, as if they’re eavesdropping on the most private of moments in a relationship. While some may find that off-putting, I find it encompassing. For the length of this album, I’m in Olsen’s world, and, more often than not, it’s a pretty freaking fantastic place to be.

Jason Mitchell
Jason Mitchell 7 Articles
Staff Writer

Jason grew up in Iowa but couldn't bring himself to like Iowa or Iowa State. Instead, he married a Cornhusker. Jason has taught junior high, high school, and college English but is now a stay-at-home dad to three kids. He also has an encyclopedic knowledge of reality shows and 1990s professional wrestling.

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