The message from Angel Olsen’s press-release is clear: don’t try and pigeon hole her music. My Woman is Angel’s third record, and each one has presented the world with a different side of her songwriting talents.
From the folky, minimalism of Half Way Home, to the emotionally bruised, outsider anthems of 2014’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Angel has never been a musician who fits into the music industries neat little boxes. Equally capable of a sparkling pop song, a drawn out minimalist epic, or a short, sharp blast of fuzzy, power-pop.
Music writers are always looking for a neat summary to a record, people will rush to tell you this is Angel’s pop record, Angel’s feminist statement, Angel sounding more like Angel than ever before. In reality it’s all of those things, and none of them. It’s a record that is personal and universal, bruised and beautiful, more like Angel Olsen than ever before, and nothing like Angel Olsen at all. It exists everywhere, except for in that box you thought she belonged in.
Rewind two years, and you’d find Angel Olsen completely confounding expectations, on her second album, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, our favourite record of 2014. That record saw Angel stepping out of the shadow’s of being that folky-girl who sings with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and showing herself to be a varied and arresting songwriter in her own right. A deeply varied album, it transversed the world of fuzzed out rock songs and heartbroken minimalism, all delivered with an emotional honesty that saw journalists rush to proclaim her the heir apparent to Leonard Cohen’s poetic, lyrical crown.
What’s immediately apparent on My Woman, is the musical shift. Not so much from her previous output, but even across this single record, it is an album that shifts through genres and styles. At first this might seem like a rather disparate collection of recordings; the shimmering, Sinead O’Connor in the 1980’s, pop of Intern, the plaintive minimalism of Heart Shaped Face, and the bright, widescreen-Americana of Sisters, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the work of multiple songwriters not one voice. However for all the fluctuating sounds and influences, the record is pinned together by its lyrical content and its lead protagonist.
If Burn Your Fire For No Witness was a record of the most primitive, visceral emotions, My Woman is arguably more considered, more matured. If Burn You Fire… was the raging storm of a break up, My Woman is the calm before it. The buzzing internal monologue that says this isn’t working, but I’m not quite willing to accept that. It’s the sound of anxious, sleepless nights spent next to the person you love, or at least loved, not knowing what’s going on inside their head.
It’s an album littered with unrequited love, but also the guilt and doubt that comes with it. It’s a record that deals explicitly with the hopelessness it can induce, this isn’t a record of wanting to be in love, but one of wanting to be anything but. Love is constantly presented as an inevitability, a inescapable emotion capable of causing great pain. It’s there clearly in the opening track, Intern, “falling in love and I swear it’s the last time”, but it repeats throughout the record, in Not Gonna Kill You she notes, “that is the kind of love I’ve always dreamed to be, however painful let it break down all of me.” It’s perhaps most painfully expressed in the stunning Woman, “I could still breathe for you, open up and scream for you, tell what I wouldn’t do, tell me that love isn’t true, I dare you to understand, what makes me a woman.” Even the seemingly upbeat, strutting demands of Shut Up Kiss Me, hold a slightly darker twist than might first appear, it’s less a demand a lover come over, and more a plea to stop talking about the problems, and just for a minute try and rekindle a spark that’s burning out, the beautiful image of ,”this heart still beats for you”, is quickly put into a crushing context with a crushing, “why can’t you see.”
The anxious lyrics are also matched in the music, it sounds more claustrophobic than much of Angel’s previous output. Whether it’s the constant wobbling synth that underpins Intern, or the vocal on Pops, which is almost whispered but distorts as if she’s singing just a bit too close to your ear drum. My Woman is a record that throughout feels as if it’s meant to just be you, the listener, and Angel. Even the way it’s mixed adds to that feeling, the vocals are constantly placed entirely front and centre, but yet oddly feel hushed, not sitting atop of the music so much, but as if Angel is right there next to you, but the music is washing in through the door from some distant speaker.
Musically it’s quite deliberately a record of two halves, Side A showcases the more upbeat musical moments; Shut Up Kiss Me, recent single and a glistening slice of power-pop, Give It Up and Not Gonna Kill You, the pair of distorted rock songs most familiar to fans of her last record. While Side B, is the bigger departure, the home to the longer, gentle, almost soft-rock numbers; Sister sounds like Fleetwood Mac with a Neil Young guitar solo thrown in, while the de facto title track Woman is a bruised, soul song. It’s a record that sounds like almost everything, other than the slightest bit modern, everything here has the shimmer of a hit-record from another era, principally the 1980’s, although Angel’s barely old enough to remember the decade.
As is the tendency for any new direction, many people have rushed to declare this Angel’s finest work to date, and you could certainly make a convincing argument for that. We’d argue more importantly than that, this is Angel making a record that hints that she can continue to evolve, and shape her sound without losing what made her so special in the first place. This is the record that suggests Angel is going to continue making great records, for years, hopefully decades to come; a songwriter who it’s simply a privilege to see progressing, the world is lucky to have musicians like Angel Olsen.
My Woman is out now via Jagjaguwar. Angel Olsen tours the UK in October – click HERE for details.