There was a time when an artist’s decision to release a full-length collection of B-sides and covers would have been met with some derision, but not so in 2017. Everything from rehearsal outtakes to rough mixes are commonplace not just on classic reissues and endless remasters but on the swathes of ‘deluxe’ albums so prevalent on streaming sites especially. But let it never be said that the music business can’t surprise me, and to that end, Angel Olsen’s Phases is the best kind of surprise in that I’m shocked some of these tracks haven’t been released sooner. It’s not good for a B-sides collection, it’s damn good full stop.
Well that was the writer’s guide for immediately giving your opinion away, and only seven lines in too; you might as well just go and listen to it now, see you next week. There’s a lot more to Phases than a brief recommendation from me, the twelve tracks Olsen has put together here – recorded between 2012 and 2017 – are some of her most affecting and emotionally charged songs to date; and they’re only enhanced by the rawness of the production. Opener Fly On Your Wall comes from the Our First 100 Days compilation of anti-Trump songs which Olsen took part in. A somewhat low-key, lovelorn protest track set to a marching drum beat that surges into a higher gear as Olsen’s voice reaches up in the final third calling out “A love never made is still mine/if only real in my mind”. What follows is Special, and I mean that in every sense of the word. It’s the longest song here by quite some way but it earns its indulgent run-time with a powerful yearning in Olsen’s delivery and lyrics, her cooing “I want to be special” with all the same catharsis of Thom Yorke on Creep. The instrumental backing of guitars and drums shrouded in reverb and later guitar noodling that emerges like rays of light through cloud ties the whole thing together beautifully across the track’s gorgeous unravelling outro.
The same focus on love and longing that Olsen has been fixated with since Burn Your Fire… stays with Phases across nearly all of its tracks; Only With You is a delicate portrait of unrequited love, Olsen’s distant vocals sweetly singing “you don’t find it in me” until the close. Likewise, All Right Now has the singer reaching into her upper register and drawing comparisons to June Carter as guitars swirl and phase around her. On Sans she sounds as if from another time entirely, singing through an old ‘50s radio with country melodies straight from her debut on Strange Cacti. From the sweet to the sour, Sweet Dreams bursts forth with a dark three-chord verse of gravelly guitars and drums as Olsen howls in the chorus and layers her expressive vibrato on in the verses to great effect. We reach the halfway point on California, not the Joni Mitchell cover I half expected – brilliant though that would be – but an introspective indie-folk wanderer, with the sly opening line “On my way to California, and I don’t mean California literally”; Olsen’s bewitching control over her voice now evoking Judy Garland of all people. It’s quite stunning.
You can always tell a lot by the songs an artist covers, especially those they choose to record. Olsen’s cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Tougher Than The Rest from the underrated Tunnel of Love strips back the bravado and the Arena Pop airs of the original into a sultry ballad of guitar and vox that is potent with the thrill of reckless love; she manages to make the line “I’ve been around a time or two […] maybe you’ve been around too” sound coy and confident in the same breath. As the record ends, Olsen’s last choice of song is another cover, Endless Road, a frequent feature of her live shows in years passed and originally featured in an episode of Bonanza. After tracking down this original version (as you should too) I’ll attest that Olsen’s version isn’t all that different and it’s a beautiful song – I don’t say that lightly. If it had been recorded by Glen Campbell around the time of Wichita Lineman it probably would have been a classic, it’s really that good.
If like me you’ve fallen for Angel and her music since her breakthrough – or even before that – Phases is pretty much unmissable. As a record of a key period in Olsen’s musical career, the album delivers on showcasing all her talents and more than a few of her influences. The production swings between the more direct moments of her more recent Jagjaguwar releases and the rough-and-ready performance of her earliest work. Sure it doesn’t feel especially coherent but arguably a B-sides collection isn’t supposed to, and if you were wanting to get into Angel’s music Phases won’t be the best starting point. This is still impressive songwriting though, an intimate portrait of an artist at her height, much like Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered, sometimes the hidden gems are the ones you treasure the most.