Angel Olsen is back with her fourth full-length album – the first since her 2014 breakthrough, Burn Your Fire for No Witness. Her scratchy guitars, lightly cracked vocals and emotionally intelligent lyrics have earned her a prominent position on the Jagjaguwar rosta. In the field of contemporary alt-country, she’s everybody’s favourite melancholy sweetheart. In short, she’s bloody brilliant.
My Woman is an album of halves; the slow-burning, contemplative yin and her racy, puckish yang. The latter opens this record with a bang. The sad Never Be Mine takes after the simple structures pervading Witness (e.g. Forgiven/Forgotten), but with fuller, Pixies-style dynamic shifts between verse and chorus. Similarly, Give It Up acts like a counterpart to Puddle of Mudd’s She Hates Me (but more articulate and less hateful despite frankly uncanny melodic similarities). Opener Intern belongs in this brighter camp of tracks too; it’s the slowest of them all, and its ambient synthesisers and lack of percussion are almost incongruous – however, for its sugary, and regretfully teenage sentiments, it’s as punky as its neighbours here on side A. Not to mention, of course, the hilarious video in which Olsen’s mournful adolescence takes on the visual metaphor of a tinsel-wigged high-schooler, twiddling the coiled telephone cable with more than just a slightly cynical glint in her eye. The highlight of this first batch though, is also the best moment on the entire record; from the unpunctuated scramble of its chorus, to the climaxing distortion of the bridge, Shut Up Kiss Me is utterly brilliant, as Olsen embraces the spirit of romance with unabashed vigour. The lyric is beautifully oxymoronic, and manages as sexlessly as possible to be the single sexiest thing I’ve heard all year. The scrawling, vibrato-heavy lead guitars are woven roughly into the mix and the drums are clobbering and uncompromising; it’s a bit like that weirdly under-produced tone Lindsey Buckingham experimented with on The Ledge, despite massive big-bucks production. There’s a deliberate, lo-fi thing going on here too, but it’s cute and warm like Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, not filthy and hideous like Sonic Youth’s Confusion Is Sex. (Bonus: the tinsel-wigged teen reappears on roller-skates for this track’s video; prior fans of Angel will no doubt enjoy the strange faces she pulls for the duration).
Side B, or ‘the second half’ (side B of the vinyl actually only contains tracks 7–10), is a very different beast. It’s a slow burn, running almost twice as long as the previous five tracks, but with a deeper, more contemplative lyrical tone at play. Heart-Shaped Face cuts straight to the point, almost aggressively inquiring the fundamental principles at heart of the male romantic psyche: “Was it me you were thinking of? / All the time when you thought of me / or was it your mother?” Sister wades in similarly deep waters, attempting to align preferences in young love with those regarding death: the paradoxical battle between a desire to live in the moment and another, to have your life planned out accordingly. Strangely enough, despite the distinctive musical halves of the album, My Woman’s ‘second side’ suffers from inconsistencies; the production takes an unwise though clearly stylised nosedive on final track, Pops, with a piano appearing for the first and only time, reminding us suddenly how weird those keyboards were on Intern (it doesn’t help that this is the next thing you hear if you play the LP back through again). Similarly, the jazzy Those Were the Days blends Henry Mancini’s Moonriver and Peter Green’s Albatross for a brilliantly miserable slow-dance, but one which seems odd and removed from anything else on the album, despite its familiarly trod path through the stasis of a teenage yesterday: “those were the days / nothing to lose and nothing to find”.
It’s a difficult score to call, this – My Woman seems intent on pleasing me immensely before dishing out disappoints of sorts – not objectively, as individually good songs; more by way of scatty fault-lines in the greater project. Shut Up Kiss Me is one of my favourite tracks of 2016; on the other hand, I could never hear Woman again and I’d not mind. After a few listens, I think it’s safe to say that the album as a collection is flawed; it’s two EPs or one big bundle of ‘demos-that-need-work’ maybe, but a finished ten–tracker? I’m just not sure.
What I can say for certain is that I love Angel Olsen’s feminist stance. It’s firm, but fair. She wants to empower the voice of women, and her emotional politics allow for it with liberal intentions – no revenge, just love. Her open self-deprecation and cynical musings on the behaviour of prospective romantics display an ironic confidence – one mired in sadness and discomfort but defined by its vocal strength and fiercely poetic vision.
Overall then, Olsen succeeds. She straddles musical excellence and surprises with a sparseness that’s nearly unwelcome. Consistently however, her lyrics bear the sweetly pacifistic weight of pragmatic feminism; the kind still touched by love, enunciated beautifully in her warbling, country-punk birdsong. Say what you want about the temperamental tunes at play here – Angel Olsen’s heart is resolutely in the right place.