Featured image via Jagjaguwar Records
My Woman by Angel Olsen
Raw. Genuine. Powerful. Self-Reliant.
This is Olsen’s most dynamic album yet. Practically split in two, My Woman is a beautiful timeline in which the listener gets to personally unfold all that is self-reliant and feminine. “I’m less afraid of what people think,” says Angel Olsen without any hesitation. “If people want to listen to folk music, they can listen to my earlier records.”
The first five tracks highlight Olsen’s signature upbeat edge, reminiscent of Burn Your Fire for No Witness, but the second half of the record expands out into an introspective and dreamily haunting B-side. “I’m starting to discover modern music where before I was really obsessed with mostly older music and soul,” says Olsen. “I was ready to step out of it.”
She emerges from the blurry low-fi of the past in some kind of rebirth beginning with the delicate fifth track “Heart Shaped Face.” She blends swelling new textures and tones with the same sharply self-reliant lyrics that can slice through even the hardest of exteriors.“The whole album was recorded live,” says Angel Olsen, “so you get that live feeling that you wouldn’t get from something that was just chopped together.” Highlight tracks include the 8-minute “Sister”, the breezy “Those Were the Days” and the triumphant “Woman.” This album eradicates any label or box that many reviewers try and put her in. Carrie Brownstein referred to it as “One of the best things you’ll hear this year. It’s been haunting me since I first heard it,” and I couldn’t agree more. The vocals twist my stomach into knots and remind me of forgotten love, finding strength in myself, and learning to move on.
The opening track, “Intern” floats on a soundscape of strings and crunchy guitars. Olsen echoes the struggle that anyone faces when trying to make a living doing what you love. “Maybe you know that it’s been too long / going through the motions as you sing your song.” Even she, who’s living out her passion on tour, gets burnt out. She’s not afraid to expose and acknowledge her vulnerabilities “Pick up the phone / but I swear it’s the last time. Falling in love / but I swear it’s the last time.” Sometimes, we know what is bad but we do it anyways. Sometimes that’s what we like about it.
02 Never Be Mine
“Never Be Mine” is an upbeat, pleading love song that easily could’ve been a song by The Ronettes. It’s almost like the follow up song, written in response to “Be My Baby” after she got fed up of being rejected, but can’t quite let her lover go. We’ve all been there and that person just won’t give us the time of day. “Heaven hits me when I see your face / I go blind every time.” And we’ve all had that person we just can’t look in the eyes because they’re as bright as the sun. “I would watch you look right through me / right through every word I say.” But she knows, you’ll never be hers.
03 Shut Up Kiss Me
This song is the firework single of the album. It explodes into a fiery declaration and reclaiming of love. Olsen is not afraid to ask or demand for what she wants. On the bridge, she swoons “I could make it all disappear/ You could feed me all your fears / We could end all this pain right here / We could rewind all of those tears.” It’s an intelligent pop song but maintains her signature grungy sound and natural grit.
04 Give It Up
On this track, the lyrics are sugar-pop simple and the most interesting part is the guitar solo. It’s grunge-y and mid-tempo, but this song gets lost among others on the album. Maybe they should’ve given it up.
05 Not Gunna Kill You
Olsen’s signature scratchy vocal stylings swoop all over this track. The song builds up to a howling frenzy where she screams, “It’s not gunna break you / it’s just gunna shake you.” The song serves as a reminder in some way to the rest of the album that things are not always as earth-shattering as they seem. She sings, almost as if to remind herself when things get too dark, “I’ll let the light shine in.”
06 Heart Shaped Face
After many listens through of the entire album, this is my favorite track. Yesterday it was “Woman.” Two days ago it was “Sister.” But there’s something about this song that digs at me. It has a way of filling a piece of a soul that was left open by the loss of something. Whether it be a person or a dream you let go, this song is somehow the balm to that gaping hole.”You never needed anyone to expose you to yourself,” she says ambiguously to a lover or possibly to herself. “There is nothing new under the sun,” Olsen croons over and over again, perfectly transitioning into a high falsetto. “And begins again,” she howls and then returns again to that soft, angelic falsetto. The song hits and churns and boils and soothes at all the right times. A simple song, released perfectly for the transitioning of seasons when leaves die and things change. Her self reliance echoes in my head, “Even still, there is no escape / For what I’ve faced, I have faced before.” There is no circling around what she means to say to that person, she’s blunt and to the point. “Have whatever love you wanna have / but I can’t be here anymore.” She doesn’t need to say any more. Her words are simple, yet hit so hard. She is refined and she knows who she is. She is her woman. She is everyone’s woman. She is no one’s woman.
Almost 8-minutes long, “Sister” and the accompanying video was what initially had me hooked on this new album. “I want go where / nobody knows fear,” she sings of the west like a romanticized dream. Starting slow and easy, Olsen makes you think the song will just be another love song you sway your head to and move on. But somewhere about three minutes in, the tempo picks up and Olsen is back with her piercing words. “I want to live right / I want to die right.” She howls as she adds, “Next to you,” almost as not wanting to admit she has this unmet desire. But she loses focus on this object of her desire. All the sudden, it’s not about that anymore. It’s about her. She starts repeating almost as a mantra, “All my life I thought I’d change,” as if giving up the gimmick. She’s admitting something to herself for the first time. Maybe she realizes that she could be the thing holding her back. This is no love song and if it is, it’s more of a love letter to herself. It chronicles the thought process of a person coming to terms with themselves. The guitars swell into a solo, layered vocals nod to Stevie Nicks in the “Mirage”-era of Fleetwood Mac and then die down again. It’s a rich and fulfilling 8 minutes.
08 Those Were The Days
This song is dreamy and effortless. It floats on a sea of smooth guitars and R&B-esque keyboard riffs, reminiscent of Hall & Oates. Angel sings so softly in almost a falsetto whisper and the song sways with the breeze. Nostalgic for a past summer, maybe in a desert or her home in Asheville, North Carolina.
Almost, but not quite the title track of the album, “Woman” begins in a swirl of strings and a prominent bass line. “There’s no promise of the future,” Olsen sings. A violin trickles in as Olsen’s husky tone fills with pain. “Open up and scream for you / Tell me what I wouldn’t do.” The tone swells. “Tell me that love isn’t true.” Olsen’s incredible ability to go from such softness to darkness in a matter of seconds is haunting. “I dare you to understand / what makes me a woman,” she yells. A song that perfectly embodies the dichotomy, the dynamic parts of what it means. What does it mean? This is my woman.
Angel Olsen is done with the run-around, whether that be in music or in her own personal life. In the final track “Pops,” she croons, “I’m not playin’ anymore / did all that before.” A low-fi piano ballad is almost a tribute to her roots, but this song is more clean. And just as she started the album exposing the uglier side of touring, she ends it. “You can go on home / You got what you need,” she sings to her audience. “Take my heart and put it up on your sleeve / Tear it up so they can all sing along / Live out your life / I’ll never tell you you’re wrong.” I can only imagine she is speaking to the discrepancy between listener and artist. The realization that music is really taking someone else’s personal pain and making it your own. We’ll never know what she really means in her words and she’ll never know how each individual person hears her music and interprets it. That’s really why all music reviews are shit. Because I can tell you for hours why I think a song is great, but you may not think so. I can tell you all the reasons a particular phrase resonates with me, but you may not think it means much. Or you may think a song means one thing and reading this review may skew you’re natural response to it. But sometimes, we hit a mutual ground and we have the same feeling or physical response to a song. We may not know why, but that unity is why music I guess is just so beautiful. Sometimes a beautiful album about inner strength and self-resilience can make us feel a little less alone in the world.
“I dare you to understand.”