A version of this originally appeared in GIGsoup.
There’s an inclination among critics when approaching an artist’s new work to reflexively view it through the lens of that artist’s previous work. A sense emerges that the artist’s career comprises some aesthetic network or narrative, with each new piece illuminating that which preceded it, and vice versa. It’s a pervasive and vaguely suspect notion – one that can lead to weird schemes of indignation when an artist doesn’t align with what we thought they were. The reception of American singer-songwriter Angel Olsen thus far is a curious example of this phenomenon. She’s a musician whose creative beginnings look very different to her current circumstances, yet she is sometimes dogged by the ‘expectations’ of fans and critics alike. Olsen has, on more than one occasion, experienced the bizarre and frankly nonsensical habit prevalent among certain avenues of the music press to predefine the careers of female artists while they’re still unfolding – although her resilience in the face of such ignorance is laudable and sometimes hilarious, once culminating in her telling a radio DJ to outright “Fuck off” when he made half-sighted assumptions about her music at the beginning of an interview.
Olsen started out as a member of a country singer’s backing band, and there have been silly attempts to pigeonhole her as such ever since. Even a cursory glance at her back catalogue reveals an artist who works within a certain framework, but is never defined by it. Her official debut, 2012’s Half Way Home, was a sparse, psych-folk gem – harbouring a country singer persona, only one tinged with hallucinatory dread and a Beckettian kind of resilient gloom. Her breakout was 2014’s magnificent Burn Your Fire For No Witness, which took the alt-country sound she was toying with and galvanised it with a jagged garage-rock sensibility through the addition of a backing band. This latest effort, My Woman, finds her evolving that sound once more – sublating the ideas of her previous efforts into an album that’s somehow simultaneously cleaner and more ragged – something like Stevie Nicks jamming with mid-70’s Crazy Horse.
At the record’s epicentre is Olsen’s astonishing voice – showcased throughout the pulsing, energetic first half, while acting as a vital adhesive for the comparatively curbed, structurally complex second half. Her vocals are incredibly diverse throughout – smoky, occasionally wounded, frequently feverish and always exhilarating. On tracks like ‘Never Be Mine’, to the sound of skeletal guitar strumming, she’ll effortlessly substitute a high note for an emotionally charged sigh (“I go blind, every time”), without compromising momentum. On the singular opener, ‘Intern’, her croon is deftly framed by synths as glistening as the silver wig she wears in the accompanying (self-directed) video. On later, drowsy tracks like ‘Sister’, Olsen’s voice is given more room to contract and expand, or seemingly crack – only to reappear, reformed. On ‘Woman’, Olsen intones the record’s demarcating line – “I dare you to understand what makes me a woman”, in a manner reminiscent of Torres’ ‘Honey’; a colossal moment concealed in a quiet one. Coupled with the expansive yet precise presence of her backing band, these spacious tracks at times evoke the caliginous atmosphere of last orders at a bar.
Songs like these show how Olsen hasn’t completely abandoned that folk-rock ideal – merely transmuted it. There’s a perpetual sense of Olsen cannibalising the forms and elements of conventional Americana to use for her own ends, in the vein of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde or Patti Smith’s Horses. Tracks like the standout lead single ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ are infectious, brimming with rollicking percussion and crisp guitars – like Aladdin Sane at a roller disco. Again, the real engine is Olsen’s performance – agitated yet decidedly headstrong – imploring a lover to “Shut up, kiss me, hold me tight / Stop your crying, it’s alright”. Over on ‘Not Gonna Kill You’, Olsen incorporates psychedelic elements into the fore, with trippy shifts in tempo and pitch illuminated by incandescent guitar freakouts & animated by the kind of earthy sensuality of early PJ Harvey.
Olsen is evidently unphased by the vagaries of interpretation or the assumptions of audience. There’s a gauged artistic autonomy that bleeds through every minute of this album, whether it be through frazzled dream-pop banger or devastating, hushed piano ballad. What’s clear is that Olsen is defining her own artistic trajectory, one that with this record can only continue to soar.