Angel Olsen finds new equipment in a vintage genre on “Big Time”


Angel Olsen doesn’t care about empty banter, conversation, or his music. “I don’t like small talk,” the 35-year-old St. Louis-born singer and songwriter said in a recent New York profile, while driving around Asheville, North Carolina, the town she has called home for nearly a decade. Similarly, the songs from his superb sixth album, “Big Time”, prefer to dive into the depths.

“I had a dream last night / We were arguing / It lasted 25 years,” begins the unfussy track “Dream Thing,” an atmospheric ballad that imagines meeting an ex and feels like a straight-forward transmission of the subconscious. Later, on the plaintive “This Is How It Works” on acoustic guitar, she cuts to the chase: “I know you can’t talk for long, but I’m barely hanging on.”

“Big Time” was recorded last year, at the end of a particularly tumultuous period in Olsen’s life: shortly after she came out to her parents – she had her first romantic relationship and his breakup with a woman during the pandemic – his father, then his mother died of separate illnesses within two months of each other. Although these earth-shattering events are not explicitly referenced on the album, “Big Time” (which she recorded in Topanga, California, with producer Jonathan Wilson) is charged with a steady stream of heavy, transformative emotions. and invigorating.

Olsen’s voice has always been a strangely moving instrument, like an imaginary folk trio of Roy Orbison, Karen Dalton and Lucinda Williams singing in perfect harmony. On her electrifying yet gritty 2012 debut album, “Half Way Home,” Olsen defiantly leaned into her vocal idiosyncrasies, imbuing nearly every note with an intense chirp. Over the next decade, through a series of increasingly confident and ambitious records, she learned to modulate those eccentricities, making them hit with ever more brutal force. His previous album, 2019’s “All Mirrors,” featured dark, almost gothic synth-rock and touching forays into orchestral pop. On “Big Time” – the first album on which Olsen consciously sings about queer desire – she turns to a genre particularly linked to tradition: country.

In a way, that makes sense. Long before the eminently viral “sad girl” aesthetic (a somewhat reductive description that stuck with millennial indie-rock women like Olsen, Mitski and Phoebe Bridgers), female country stars like Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette found the genre a welcome place to bask in bottomless melancholy. These two artists feel like touchstones on “Big Time” (“I’ve never been too sad,” Olsen sings at one point, “Too sad I couldn’t share”). But on flamboyant songs like the gripping “Ghost On” and the stunning “Right Now,” Olsen strikes a perfect balance between honoring the sounds of country’s past and updating them in his own image. “Why did you have to go there and make it weird?” she continues on to one of the most awe-inspiring sonic moments on the record – the plunging chorus of “Right Now” – a perfect bit of familiar lyricism that makes this timeless song singularly her own.

The opener and lead single, “All the Good Times”, is a laid-back breakup song that Olsen wrote a few years before the album was recorded. she said she originally intended to gift it to country star Sturgill Simpson, but it’s hard to imagine it in anyone else’s hands, with its weary benevolence and climax emotional patiently paced but always explosive. “I can’t say I’m sorry when I don’t feel so bad anymore,” Olsen sings above lights, drums and flashing lap steel like in a Steve Miller song.

While the first half of the record doesn’t skimp on heartbreaking moments (“All the Flowers” is a highlight, showcasing Olsen’s crooner’s intuitive phrasing and gift for melody), “Big Time” crescendos into her second half, on a stretch of tracks that contains two of the most devastating songs she has ever composed. The first is “Right Now”, a country lament which, in its last minute, turns into a dissonant, stone-eyed confrontation a la Fleetwood Mac’s “Silver Spring”: “I need you to look at me and Listen to me,” Olsen intones. , “I am the past that comes back to haunt you.”

Then there’s “Go Home,” a song-adorned conflagration that sounds like an antiquated theater burning in slow motion. “I want to go home,” Olsen groaned like someone who knows it’s too late to “go back to the little things.” Her vocal performance is heartbreaking, but by the end of the song, she’s come to some kind of peace: “Forget the old dream,” she sings, “I got a new thing.”

Olsen’s music resists easy sentiment, and “Big Time” ends on an appropriately ambiguous note. If she wanted a simple happy ending, she might have concluded with the playful, loving title track, which Olsen wrote with her current partner, Beau Thibodeaux. (Its chorus revolves around one of the intimate slogans of their relationship: “I love you very much.”)

The record fades instead with “Chasing the Sun”, a song that also depicts a budding new love and contains some of Olsen’s most playful lyrics – “write you a postcard when you’re in the other room – but its brilliant arrangement of piano and strings make it sound like an elegy. Olsen once again seems to be brooding over the transformative nature of grief: it may never completely go away, but in time it may be able to imbue the hard-earned good times with extra shine.

Angel Olsen

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