Today, Missouri-born Angel Olsen begins her sold-out New Zealand shows. Ruben Mita takes a look at Angel’s latest album, My Woman.

Title: My Woman
Artist: Angel Olsen
4/5 stars
Released: 2/09/16
Reviewed by: RUBEN MITA

 

Angel Olsen’s growth as a songwriter reminds us why we should have all woken up earlier to buy tickets. 

Angel Olsen’s third album is the sound of one songwriter, like so many before her, attempting to purposefully and methodically break free of her self-constructed musical bubble. The scenario has played out over and over again – a deserving musician finds themselves painted into a corner by their first few albums, and because of this their attempt to broaden their offerings and reset people’s expectations, can’t escape taking on a self-aware nature.

In Olsen’s case, 2014’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness simultaneously established her fame and constricted her to the “sad girl” image usually hung upon any female singing mellow songs with an acoustic guitar. In this case it may have been deserved – Fire is primarily a downbeat and tragically romantic folk album, but it was still permeated in moments by the lingering feeling that the St. Louis-born singer-songwriter was capable of delivering a much more unique creation. And here it is.

As though to throw first-time listeners off as much as possible, the album opens with a sound both previously unheard from Olsen and unrepeated later on the album; the smooth shimmering synth-pop ballad Intern. Her intent is stated from the very start – “Doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done/Still got to wake up and be someone.” Indeed Olsen’s writing and delivery on My Woman is brimming with personality, her way of being someone, in a way that her previous releases aren’t.

Never Be Mine and Give It Up are straightforward jangle-rock compositions that shine in their directness and their loose strummed swagger. Single Shut Up Kiss Me is an explosive slice of garage pop-rock made compelling by the conviction of Olsen’s powerful vocal delivery, brimming with energy.

These tracks are all found on the first half of the album, while the second is composed of five gentler ballad-like pieces. The sparse Heart Shaped Face includes one of the record’s best lines: “Was it me you were thinking of/All that time when you thought of me?” Following it, the album’s centrepiece, Sister, spends four and a half minutes building towards a climactic groove in an incredibly similar vein to Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams, Olsen’s voice channeling Stevie Nicks (accidentally or not) when she drops to a low velvety murmur.

Her voice refuses to satisfy our usual biased demands of a female vocalist. In some places, such as the comfortingly-titled Not Gonna Kill You, her nasality even takes on tones of Bob Dylan in those long strained notes, holding back from a full-voiced delivery. Elsewhere she floats into ghostly falsetto, purrs quietly, strains long held syllables and snaps forcefully, all demonstrating the incredible control she possesses over her vocal chords.

Lyrically the album settles for the less-is-more approach, Olsen speaking throughout in basic clichés (“And every time I see you/I tell myself I’ll never/Have this feeling with another/Oh, you’re in my heart forever”). As with all such heard-before songwriting, the delivery determines its success. Olsen repeats the theme of despairing, hopeless love throughout the album constantly enough for it to come across as genuine and convincing.  

After the vocals, the most important change on My Woman is the move towards a looser, rockier, full-band sound. The interplay between the guitars of Olsen and lead guitarist Stewart Bronaugh is a delight, an interlocking bed of chords and simple riffs delivered in a tasteful, crunchy tone. The arrangements in general are brilliantly thought out and dynamic, the 5-piece band channelling the loose but concise crunch of 70’s bands such as Crazy Horse.

Having opened with a sonic outlier, the album closes with one as well – the chamber piano ballad Pops, accompanied by pained, distorted lo-fi vocals reminiscent of her earlier work but more convincing in performance. It both sounds beautiful and wraps the album up perfectly, acting as a conclusion to the themes contained throughout the track listing while standing out as a highlight itself. She even includes a comforting reminder that she might not be in as much emotional turmoil as her composition’s characters: “Baby, don’t forget it’s a song.”

In 2016, My Woman presents the idea of songwriting in its most basic and essential form. Simple and satisfying, it at the same time represents an expansion of Angel Olsen’s musical horizons and establishes her as a creative force to watch. While it doesn’t always carry as substantial an effect as it could, it both stands as a strong offering and attracts excitement for the myriad of musical possibilities we might hear from her in the future. As she sings in the first song, “I just want to be alive, make something real.” Check, aaand… check.

Standout Tracks: Never Be Mine, Give It Up, Shut Up Kiss Me, Sister, Pops, Intern, Heart Shaped Face, Not Gonna Kill You.

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