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Angel Olsen - "My Woman" | Album Review

by Max Freedman (@anticlimaxwell)

Angel Olsen has been playing a joke on us, but is not the one we thought it might be. This June, Olsen dropped two new songs in the form of hilarious music videos. “Intern,” arrived as a trailer with no name at the very beginning of June casting Olsen, clad in a silver tinsel wig, as a character whose every glance, motion, and outfit is sweeping mockery of so many different eras in film and music videos. “Shut Up Kiss Me,” ended the month with this same character utilizing overly dramatic pouts, whines, and falls as methodology for tackling its subject with a tongue-in-cheek superficiality. Both songs are fantastic for entirely different reasons, but one of their few commonalities is that, in June, they seemed to hint that My Woman, Olsen’s hotly anticipated third LP and follow-up to 2014’s evergreen Burn Your Fire For No Witness, might be a giant joke, a dial-in that Olsen created solely to see how far the media could go to validate an insincere piece of art. It felt like a chance for fans to laugh as Olsen took down the characterizations that have defined – and, perhaps in her eyes, plagued – her career.

Released just a week before My Woman, the entirely serious video for “Sister” seems to indicate that this is not the case. The real joke Olsen has played here is how strikingly the album’s first two singles (and their videos’ farcical nature) don’t represent My Woman. Shame on Olsen for fooling us once, but shame on us for letting Olsen fool us twice. Although “Shut Up Kiss Me” might be the most purely, viscerally enjoyable song Olsen will ever record, My Woman’s ten songs mostly scale back the humor of these two tracks. Instead, they are wholly impactful, packaging the widely relatable devastation of Burn Your Fire into soft, glam-tinged gems that display an immense leap in Olsen’s already fantastic songwriting skills. Whether trotting down the grunge path she began to explore on Burn Your Fire, or opting for the more hushed look she’s consistently adopted throughout her six years releasing music, My Woman is the sound of Olsen presenting herself as the artist she’s been slowly becoming since her debut EP near the beginning of the decade.

Much of the initial press around My Woman focused on its very deliberate sequencing. Olsen stuffs the first half of this ten-song collection with the more immediate, radio-friendly songs, a stretch wherein both “Intern” and “Shut Up Kiss Me” lie. The latter song represents this section quite well, and slots up nicely between the Girls-like tropical haze of “Never Be Mine” and “Give It Up,” both of which feel born of the same cloth as Burn Your Fire’s “Hi-Five.” The second half is rife with solemn, more introspective tracks, and it’s in this stretch where Olsen’s evolution is the most apparent and rewarding.

After the album’s first half closes with the wallop of “Not Gonna Kill You,” Olsen offers “Heart Shaped Face,” which feels like a direct follow-up to “Lights Out,” the high water mark of Burn Your Fire. It’s the album’s closest connection to what came before it – unsurprising, as she’s been playing it live since 2014, Burn Your Fire’s release year – and its familiarity nestles under the skin. It’s a necessary segue into My Woman’s B-side, as the four tracks that follow resemble absolutely nothing Olsen’s committed to record before. “Woman,” the album’s quasi-title track, pours Olsen’s recently purchased Mellotron to the bottom of its dense glass, slowly growing into a silken eight-minute dream; “Sister” spans just as much length, opting for a gorgeous ambiance that recalls peak Fleetwood Mac (“Dreams” in particular, a fitting choice). This smooth atmosphere continues into the nostalgic “Those Were The Days,” standing in stark contrast to the closing, sparse burner “Pops,” which sits as Olsen’s first-ever piano ballad.
Tying each side together are the drastic and numerous changes in Olsen’s voice, an already fantastic and flexible instrument that stretches its limbs much further than ever before. This is one quality that My Woman’s singles predicted quite well: Olsen’s delicate falsetto guiding “Intern” to a close was completely new in June, and it’s still shocking to hear her sing in a similarly high range across the entirety of “Those Were The Days” and the intro of “Never Be Mine.” Olsen skyrocketing into her higher register has no precedent in any songs released under her name; the closest indication of this new technique emerged just eight days before “Intern” dropped from the heavens, in the form of her backing vocals on Cass McCombs’ “Opposite House.” Her contributions to this song’s chorus, at the time of its release, sounded like anyone but Olsen, a completely unexpected and possibly questionable use of her talent. In light of My Woman, her soothing aahs instead feel like a deft choice on McCombs’ part.

But back to how those singles pointed to where Olsen’s voice lies on My Woman: “Shut Up Kiss Me” showcases an even more arresting new vocal trick, as at many points, Olsen’s voice nearly pins due to its dire urgency (“I could make it ALL go away”; “it’s all over, baby, but I’M still young”); this technique marks the emotional climax of “Not Gonna Kill You” and one of the two stunning peaks of later single “Sister.” The former track stands out from the A-side thanks to Olsen’s belting as the song breaks its ever-building tension with a minute left; the latter finds Olsen’s voice cracking into the pin-range after she delivers her first set of “all my life I could change” howls, a phrase that later reappears in Olsen’s most distinctively Stevie Nicks-like delivery to date.

Olsen’s voice is as fluid as ever on My Woman, in huge part thanks to the co-production work of Justin Raisen, best known for work with pop stars such as Santigold, Sky Ferreira, and Charli XCX. Ferreira is a fair comparison point for the final comedown of “Sister” and the final vocal fragments of “Intern;” otherwise, Raisen’s contributions lie in how his production enables Olsen to adapt her voice to her surroundings with more variance than ever. He helps open doors that had previously seemed entirely closed to her; even in moments such as her siren call of “I dare you to understand/what makes me a woman” (perhaps the album’s central lyric) on “Woman,” wherein Olsen’s singing hearkens back to what she’s known for, her daggers strike more dreadfully than ever before.

It would make sense for Olsen to diversify her singing so that she could add greater vocal impact to simultaneously improved lyricism; on a surface level, though, My Woman doesn’t appear to showcase Olsen developing her words nearly as strongly as it sees her rapidly outpacing her former instrumental, vocal, and structural habits. The humor of “Shut Up Kiss Me” and “Intern” read as steps backwards when removed from their instrumental and vocal context, and “Give It Up” describes a circumstance similar to Burn Your Fire’s “High and Wild” with fewer clever gut-punches. A deeper look, however, points to the heart-shattering detail in which Olsen describes how her lover would rather think of anyone else on “Heart Shaped Face”: “was it me you were thinking of/all the time when you thought of me/was it your mother/was it your shelter/was it a lover with a heart-shaped face?” A similar burden of the heart manifests in “Never Be Mine,” which weaves a third-person narrative into the fold, a bold move for an artist whose fans value how strongly autobiographical her tales often sound.

Not to fret: My Woman is still a hair-raising personal journey. Whether in the form of the existential dread opening “Not Gonna Kill You” (“My watch is blurry/when I look down at my hands/I’m just another/alive with impossible plans”) or the borderline angry swell that splits “Pops” (“you can go on home/you got what you need/take my heart/and bleed up on your sleeve/tear it up so they can sing along”), My Woman is certainly not lacking for painfully intimate narratives. “Those Were The Days” paints a vivid picture of nostalgia with simple yet sweeping statements such as “feeling free/wanting to see each other/all the time/those were the days/nothing to lose and nothing to find,” and “Sister” reads like one long thesis on the need for a proper idol to emulate (“she came together like a dream/that I didn’t know I had/from the sleeping life I lead/all the colors I have seen/I can’t help but recognize/brighter one in front me”).

It’s this latter track in particular that makes the strongest case for Angel Olsen as a Beloved Songwriter Of Our Generation. “Sister” is a testament to the stylistic and instrumental variance present throughout My Woman – starry-eyed intro, soft rock middle, fiery instrumental interlude – as well as the most brazen song of Olsen’s career. Its key lyric, the oft-repeated “all my life, I thought I’d change,” puts the blame on Olsen rather than one of the many antagonists she’s previously created, which is a change from much of her past catalogue. The lyric is a bizarre sentiment to so boldly project on an album that’s often such a drastic, er..., change for an artist that’s maintained a relatively stable style in her career, and it’s driven home via one of recent memory’s most invigorating guitar solos outside the St. Vincent catalog. Olsen’s lead guitarist, Stewart Bronaugh (who combines with drummer Joshua Jaeger to form the wonderful duo Lionlimb), lets the sparks fly so wildly that, for the first time in Olsen’s career, a guitar line competes with her voice to act as the most destructive element of a song. Across its vast length, “Sister” never lets up; it marks a bold direction in which many will likely hope to see Olsen continue.

So where does an artist go after offering an album this unexpected and filled with risks? My Woman feels like the kind of album that may be looked back upon as an extremely influential classic thirty, twenty, maybe even ten years down the line. It’ll be a tough act to follow, but the confidence on blatant display throughout the album suggests that Olsen’s up to the challenge. The more immediate question is whether listeners will be up to the challenge Olsen has posed them with My Woman. A reward that not even eleven paragraphs of text can properly describe lies on the other side.