“I’m gonna fall in love/and run away” quivers Missourian Angel Olsen on ‘Intern’ the pulsing 80s flecked soul-pop opener of her third album My Woman. But she does anything but on this extraordinary musically eclectic, haunted existential trip through the dualities of love and where it leaves oneself. Already critically praised, we aren’t afraid to admit we are late to the party on this one, but we couldn’t help adding our voice to the chorus of approval for Angel Olsen’s latest long player
Emerging from the shadows of working with Bonnie Prince Billy, the scorched, personal, brittle lo fi fuzz box of 2014’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness saw her emotive brand of torch song capture broken hearts. My Woman is on the one hand more musically varied, and possesses a bolder voice, yet its themes are even more uncertain and more conflicted than the unrequited ‘we’re all in this together’ couplets of Burn Your Fire..’
“My Woman” may on the face of it be an existential document to a love that is crumbling before your eyes but listen closer and you realise she’s questioning whether love is even worth it, and what it means to try and hang onto yourself whilst in the churning eye of a contradictory relationship. All soundtracked by an album of superb power pop songs rubbing alongside gloriously towering, soulful compositions.
The strutting brilliance of kick ass lead single ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ does what all great pop music does – it’s laced with a bittersweetness because it sound like an upbeat love song on the face of it, but listen closer and its lyrics are laced with turmoil as she commands a lover to stop arguing and clasp onto what made things so great in the first place, with a lip curling sneer. ‘Give It Up’ is a twitching rocker has something of an early R.E.M. vibe replete with a slacker riff that could have been rustled up by a young Peter Buck. It’s decorated by Olsen’s pained vocal painting out in bright colours, just how much she’s willing to give up for someone else.
“That is the kind of love I’ve always dreamed to be, however painful let it break down all of me” she sings on the rippling ‘Not Gonna Kill You’, full of extraordinary riffs, and see saw rhythmic clatters speeding off into the distance.
This is the classic album of two halves, so in its second portion it shifts down the tempo scale. The minimal seduction of ‘Heart Shaped Face’ is a wracked beauty, an ode to frailty, Olsen’s vocal displaying a tragic duality and character clarity that Jeff Buckley would have been proud of. Sister is the quivering haunting at the end of the night pleading ‘I want to go where nobody knows fear” as if haunted by her own shadow. Its post feminist themes present strength through pain of the self. It’s utterly glorious, its last burns like embers of the self and it sounds like Mazzy Star as renovated by a contemporary artist at the top of her game.
The astounding seven minute epic “Woman” is even better, reminscent in part of the ghosts of Cat Power‘s greatest moments or Julee Cruise’s epic ‘Falling’ from Twin Peaks, yet it is utterly individual and fresh. A modern soul song for the self whose throbbing faintly bluesy baselines and simmering instrumentation are invested with an extraordinary vocal performance that scales and wells the depths: the sound of waking up and being enveloped by the realisation that it’s all falling apart yet wanting desperately to save what’s left.
Its bruised outstanding last crescendos are some of the most breath taking moments of music I have heard this year, as its shifting background stutter and Olsen’s incredible vocal delivers some of the most startlingly stark couplets: “I could still breathe for you, open up and scream for you, tell what I wouldn’t do, tell me that love isn’t true, I dare you to understand, what makes me a woman.”
“I’m not playing anymore” Olsen promises on final track “Pops”. This tender minimalism is broken yet arresting, redolent of the broken lo fi of Kimya Dawson, Olsen’s tone shifting to inhabit a haunted heartbreak.
Despite what you may think on first listen. My Woman isn’t just an album about relationships, or love or even a man, it’s a fierce document of the self, of holding onto the fragments of yourself when everything is falling apart around you. So it turns out the woman she’s singing about is herself. It’s also an immensely varied and almost uncategorisable album of alt-pop music infected with a burgeoning artistry. It is utterly startling, one of the best records of the year.
My Woman is out now on Jagjaguwar.