By: Helena Najm –
Angel Olsen isn’t an easy artist to define, and in fact, she discourages it. This has less to do with the fact that she tries to give off an air of mystery when she writes, but rather because it took her a long time to find her voice and when she did, it turned out to be complex. Her meteoric rise to fame as a result of her critically acclaimed second full-length album, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, would prove to be an exercise in patience for the 29-year-old because she would have to face listeners who would obsess with trying to define her along simplistic terms. Truthfully, the frantic topic, style and tone shifts of Burn Your Fire could get frustrating, as the pacing feels awkward but it also means that upon further listens, one could find a song for every occasion.
My Woman builds upon the thematic complexity of its predecessor but reigns it into a slightly more centralized theme: while the album still deals with relationships and bonds, listeners can get more of a sense that Olsen does desire them but is just starting to figure out how to maintain them while nurturing her own happiness. This album feels more cohesive, more explosive and more animated while maintaining a much softer B-side, much like how her previous effort blended garage-rock tunes with soft ballads. My Woman, however, flows more evenly, with the first half really focusing on a less ravaged and tragic image of what listeners believed Olsen to be after Burn Your Fire and leading into a more defeated character that is trying to build herself back up again after heartbreak. My Woman is more of a process and you can feel yourself accompany Olsen on her journey to discovery of how to be more open to love and admitting that desire after being hurt by it.
Burn Your Fire felt much less vulnerable, with “White Fire” standing out as a crack in the middle of the album’s façade. One flaw that could be reproached of it is its discomfort with the use of a full band, or rather the inability to convey the same attitude and whimsy that Olsen crafted on her own on prior releases. But My Woman showcases a growth wherein Olsen and her bandmates learned how to create the sonic landscapes that could properly marry her unique creative voice with a more polished sound. There is also a clear personal progression between the two works, with Olsen finding herself asking “What’s so wrong with the light?” at the end of Burn Your Fire and following up with “I’ll let the light shine in” on ‘Not Gonna Kill You’, wherein she more openly embraces the personal growth that can come from opening yourself up and being disappointed. Another commonality between the two albums is that Olsen remains comfortable with the idea that she only needs to shine brightly for herself and that her agency is more important than other people entering the wild, isolated thought space that she inhabits. She writes about loneliness with more serenity and peace than she does love, and perhaps she has realized that with her rise to fame, she would like to maintain that calm isolation.
The opener – “Intern” – doesn’t immediately shed light on what’s to come, since Olsen is an artist who is not interested in being predictable. However, even though she begins the album with a synth-heavy opener – a first for her – it maintains the quirk of her first effort, Strange Cacti, reminding Olsen’s audience of her roots and how far she can evolve them while maintaining her creative voice. The album continues into more topically conventional material, dealing with unrequited love (‘Never Be Mine’). These don’t go without twists, with “Never Be Mine” employing the same insistent upbeat instrumental against darker lyrics as “Hi-Five”, which dealt with the topic of loneliness with a unique fervor. “Give It Up” is probably the best show of how to adapt the big band sound to Olsen’s songwriting because instead of drowning her vocal and lyrical performances out, it lifts her up and makes her assert her vision more boldly. “Those Were The Days” proves to be a significant departure from the grungey snarl that seeped into her music: her delicate voice is more reminiscent of Beth Gibbons on “It Could Be Sweet” than the alt-rock space that Olsen seemed to fit into before. This shows how she challenged herself on this album to write differently in order to experiment with her voice and how to express more grounded stories than in albums past.
The album ends with “Pops”, a more lo-fi track that departs thematically from the rest of the album, having supposedly been written about the paternalistic music industry. But if listened to without this context or without care, this song comes across as a story of betrayal and learning to trust oneself again (“it hurts to start dreaming again”), which could apply to a story of love lost in the form of a person or a passion such as music. This is a perfect example of the depth of meaning in Olsen’s lyrics that are betrayed by a minimalist instrumental or a bare-bones vocal delivery.
The most arresting talent that is showcased on the album is Olsen’s uncanny ability to lay her life and emotions out for people to see and comment on while remaining extremely mysterious, valuing anonymity and distance from the audience over complete openness. After all, she remains the lonely girl who is happy to be so, she just reminds us of that fact with much more control over her voice, commanding our attention.