MY WOMAN by Angel Olsen
Genre: Indie Rock
Favorite Tracks: “Intern,” “Never Be Mine,” “Heart Shaped Face,” “Sister,” “Those Were The Days,” “Woman,” “Pops”
On Angel Olsen’s debut tape, STRANGE CACTI, an acrobatic voice and lonely guitar resonated in a claustrophobic void, carrying longing pain and anxious crises through the unfurnished spaces of vacant apartments. 2012’s full-length HALF WAY HOME signified a comfort within this space beyond the bare-bones attire of the preceding tape, with tracks like “The Sky Opened Up” and “The Waiting.” By 2014’s breakout BURN YOUR FIRE FOR NO WITNESS, following the two-song SLEEPWALKER, that musty old apartment became a fully lived-in space; grimey and dense with baggage, but homey all the same. Considering the developments on her latest effort, MY WOMAN, it’s clear that BURN YOUR FIRE also saw the logical endpoint of that existential midnight-island-mutiny sound that defined Olsen’s early career (and in her view, also cursed it), with tracks like “White Fire” and “Iota,” while not-so-subtly hinting at a beauty just out of reach, with songs like “Window” and “Endless Road” — a beauty that finally becomes tangible on MY WOMAN.
While Olsen’s progression to a brighter sound is not unexpected (remember “High & Wild,” “Free,” or “Dance Slow Decades”?), there is certainly a hard break between MY WOMAN and Olsen’s previous works. If BURN YOUR FIRE was the final moment of that lived-in apartment, MY WOMAN is the move to a new, clean space to define; she’s bringing along some of the same stuff from the old place, but now there’s much more room to explore and shape to her liking. The first and easiest shift to point out is the opening track “Intern,” being the only track in her catalog like it (praying for that synthpop EP).
“Doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done / Still got to wake up and be someone.” Glimmering, slowed-out synths shape “Intern,” carving and decorating the walls, giving her audience time to adjust to the new Olsen before jumping into the 60s folk-pop throwback “Never Be Mine.” Though more nuanced than a nostalgic replica, “Never Be Mine” sees Olsen clearly showing off her influences while simultaneously taming them and using their aspects for her own devices, crafting a standout track that ends up being a more single-worthy piece than MY WOMAN’s actual singles!
Speaking of singles, “Shut Up Kiss Me,” though initially off-putting despite its fantastic video, ends up being another highlight on the record, playing off the garage-pop baggage from BURN YOUR FIRE FOR NO WITNESS with indie twangs and sweet, blown-out vocals around every corner. The rest of the A-side generally plays off of the themes presented by these two tracks — “Give It Up” being somewhat of a reflection of “Shut Up Kiss Me,” and “Not Gonna Kill You” being a unique amalgam of folk-pop and grunge instrumentation. “Heart Shaped Face” closes off the first half of MY WOMAN, with lyrics concisely striking on what so many other songs in Olsen’s career could merely scratch the surface at: that all too common feeling of realizing the end of a relationship by seeing the projections and dependencies made by one’s partner, their need to escape through someone else, and finally ending it all, closing with the lines “There is nothing new / Under the sun / Heartache ends / And begins again.”
MY WOMAN’s B-side leads off with the expansive “Sister,” coming in at just under eight minutes, illustrating a scenario in which Olsen meets someone she’s imagined and gets to show them how she’s learned to navigate the world; presumably, it’s an imaginary sister, but who’s to say she isn’t talking about herself as well if the title of the record is also referring to herself. At this point MY WOMAN really starts to shine, as the lines “I want to live life / I want to die right / Next to you” force shifting gears and lead into the track’s emotionally charged second half, where the band and harmonies start to glow and freak out, inducing a state of trauma as Olsen repeats “All my life I thought I’d change.”
The following track “Those Were The Days” flows right out of “Sister” with its opening chord, and is one of the best performances lyrically and musically that Olsen has put out, from the keyboard lingering behind the band, to Olsen’s croons lifting up the tail end of each verse, to the verses themselves. Reminiscing and accepting failed romances, the verse that opens and closes the track quietly sums up her brand of dark nostalgia: “Do you remember the way that it used to be? / I waited for you / And you kept on searching with me / Feeling free / Wanting to see each other all of the time / Those were the days / Nothing to lose and nothing to find.”
Refusing to let up, MY WOMAN reaches its climax with the near-title track, “Woman,” in which Olsen ruminates not only on the pervasive sense of heartbreak that consumes much of her work, but also her perspective as a woman, more specifically the permanence of that perspective in her life, singing “Am I not allowed / To think kindly of a stranger / Who reflects the sound / Of my heartache / As it’s beating / My life to the ground,” then “I dare you to understand what makes me a woman / I’d do anything / To see it all / The way that you do / But I’d be lying.” At seven-and-a-half minutes long, “Woman” reflects the fantasy and regret of “Sister” into a piece that acknowledges vulnerability while remaining powerfully self-sustaining. Rounding out MY WOMAN is “Pops,” a track that pokes at the patriarchy of the music industry while still giving room to be read as a truly crushing piece of music — finally, Olsen’s rip-your-heart-to-shreds voice is paired with nothing but a piano.
While making grand statements about records just a few days after their release may be rather naive, especially when it comes to indie music, Angel Olsen’s work in MY WOMAN is a statement that truly cannot be ignored. MY WOMAN is a profoundly romantic, mature, and fulfilling record, crafted with remarkable precision and thoughtfulness for its context. Confident she’ll continue to deliver a voice as unique as her experiences, whether Olsen heads down the synthpop route or the direction hinted at by MY WOMAN’s B-side, there’s no doubt I’ll be eager to listen to whatever she has in store next.