Angel Olsen's latest is her best record yet, a bracing mix of sounds and styles congealing around songs of pain, sadness, and hope.
“Shut Up Kiss Me”—
In 2010, Angel Olsen was a folk singer. Her first great song, “If It’s Alive, It Will,” sounded radically spare, like it had been recorded inside of a closet, or perhaps in another world. It contained some three-dozen epiphanies—one for each line. “Know your own heart well/It’s the one that’s worth most of your time,” Olsen sang, a mantra so disarming and wise it could cut through the thickest lo-fi fog. “If It’s Alive, It Will” was pure empathy. You might implant it in your brain as a reminder of how to live. You could never forget, then, that solitude begets possibility, or that loving a person can transform your mind, or that someone in the universe is currently as lonely as you. “If It’s Alive, It Will” embodied the poised philosophy of Olsen’s songbook to come. Introverted dreamers—people who are quiet on the outside while the world rages so loudly within them—always live by this loner logic. Olsen gave it a melody.
Modern noises vanish when Olsen sings. From the bracing incantations of 2012’s Half Way Home to Olsen’s folk-rock opus, 2014’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness, her name is now synonymous with a voice. Each note tells a story. Hers are tales of absolute yearning and resilience. They honor the romance of being alone in your head. Olsen has perfected the idea that it is still possible—if language is precise enough, if the truth of your music is as elemental as color or blood—to write oneself out of time. Her lyrics have the conviction of someone like Fiona Apple: a profoundly individual presence that centers, above all, on self-reliance, on searing autonomy, on the act of becoming.
My Woman does this more vividly and lucidly and daringly than before. If Burn Your Fire was Olsen’s poetic manifesto, then My Woman lives freely within its world. Together, the two albums remind me of something Patti Smith once said, in 1976, distinguishing the literary Horses from its follow-up, Radio Ethiopia, by calling the latter “total physical energy” and also more implicitly feminine. My Woman walks a tightrope of love to figure out what it is—how to find it, how to allow it in, how to feel it, how to fight for it, how to let it go—by a person who does not lose herself in the process.
The upbeat A-side ranges from the sun-kissed to the blindingly bright. In the final moments of Burn Your Fire, Olsen asked, “Won’t you open a window sometime/What’s so wrong with the light?” and here she responds. She offers witty and taunting rhinestone-cowgirl come-ons that would make Dolly and Loretta proud. She lets loose a piercing, guttural, King-sized “Baby!” that shoots fire into the red. She shrieks “I’m still yours!” with sublime vivacity. My Woman contains soda-pop rippers as pained and distraught and irreducible as any girl-group classic: “Heaven hits me when I see your face,” Olsen sings with wide-eyed optimism that wilts on arrival, “But you’ll never be mine.” So much of My Woman is rock‘n’roll in the traditional sense, from a ’50s or ’60s jukebox, and it is positively electric, a total blast.
“Intern,” the synth meditation of an opener, is all shivers, a borderless dream-pop song that never quite begins or ends. It’s about the inescapable necessity, for all people, of figuring out who you are: “Still gotta wake up and be someone.” The winding synth melody has a surreal, Lynchian, merry-go-round shine. “I just wanna be alive/Make something real,” Olsen sings, a surprisingly conversational and sensible proposition. “Shut Up Kiss Me” has all the rapture of a black-and-white stop-action movie, with slapstick country humor: “Stop pretending I’m not there/When it’s clear that I’m not going anywhere,” Olsen sings. “If I’m out of sight then take another look around!” In the videos for both songs, Olsen donned a synthetic silver wig, bringing to mind the makeup of her beloved Dolly Parton: “I look so totally artificial, but I’ve always been the simplest person in the world,” Dolly has said. “I knew that there was wisdom and naturalness in me. The way I looked so false and was so real made a nice combination. It’s my fun.”
But Olsen’s fun songs—bright and sweet as they are—are a bit deceiving. The arrangements carry the levity and mania of infatuation, the feeling of total flight, but even here, Olsen’s writing is heavy as ever. (The poet Frank O’Hara once wrote, “each time my heart is broken it makes me feel more adventurous,” which is a fine synopsis of My Woman and the glitter that tempers its aching.) “Never Be Mine” sounds like the ’60s in Caetano Veloso’s Brazil, or Spanish guitar music. “Give It Up” puts a pure “Cathy’s Clown” melody over open Nirvana strums. They’re love songs, but it can never last, and inside all of them, there seems to be a message about the impossibility of ownership, which “Not Gonna Kill You” sings: “A love that never seems to curse or to confine/Will be forever never lost or too defined... However painful let it break down all of me/’Til I am nothing else but the feeling.” Like all of My Woman, it’s tough and tender at once, a bold rumination on how love and autonomy require one another.
And then the record slows. As “Woman” and “Sister” sprawl defiantly towards their eight-minute marks, Olsen’s warble stretches into impressionistic waves. The command of Olsen’s vibrato is wild but controlled—which is to say anarchic—and as the songs get longer, they communicate molecularly, contain more feeling, a haunted drama. The twilight jazz of “Those Were the Days” sparkles like city lights in water at night. On the ecstatic and feverish rave-up “Sister,” the guitar arrangement is enthralling, putting the starry tone of Marquee Moon inside a scorched Crazy Horse jam. “I dare you to understand,” Olsen later boils, “What makes me a woman.” The answer is in the nonlinear alchemy of her corporeal song.
The closer is a raw piano ballad called “Pops.” It is impossibly stark. Olsen’s voice sounds like it is pressed up against glass. “If you want the rainbow,” Dolly Parton once philosophized, “you have to put up with the rain.” “Pops” is all blurred raindrops, recalling Cat Power on You Are Free with the wonder of Judy Garland. Olsen sounds like she’s just been emptied of every tear in her body. The salt makes “Pops” glisten. It’s so filmic and classic-sounding that you can practically see a sole red balloon floating against the grey of a cityscape. “Pops” is Olsen’s heaviest song; it’s exhausting. But if ever there were proof that it is possible for life to be gorgeous and fucked-up in equal measure, at the same time, this song is it.
Burn Your Fire was Olsen’s detailed film treatment, but My Woman goes big-screen; it’s Olsen as auteur. “Know your own heart well,” she sang in 2010, “You could be surprised at what you find.” But part of following your heart, of knowing yourself, is understanding that it’s not a fixed muscle. The heart changes; it grows. Its beat speeds and slows as a symptom of life. Here, on “Pops,” Olsen asks, “What is it a heart’s made of?” Maybe you never find out for sure; maybe it’s the unending search itself that becomes the compass of our being. Love is a maze with no way out. But My Woman suggests that the way in is through self-possession.