(Still from ‘Intern’ Official Video)
Let me preface this by admitting that I never heard of Angel Olsen until I volunteered to write this review. I feared she was the forgotten sibling of the Michelle Tanner clan, and with guns blazing I was ready to rip her and this album to shreds. That would’ve been hypocritical because I always encourage people to listen to an album in full, no matter the artist, before dishing a heap of criticism. I’ve even suffered through an entire Insane Clown Posse album at the risk of popping my blood vessels like a shaken 2-liter of Faygo.
Today is the day that I invite Angel Olsen to any room that triggers depressing memories from my past, sit adjacently on a royal, plush chair and flash a permanent smirk towards my direction without ever saying anything. This smirk will speak for itself, saying, “I told you so,” over and over without showing her pearly whites. At first I’ll marvel at her natural beauty, then her accusing stare will cause me to melt into a puddle that will never amount to an ocean of piss. My Woman, her third full-length album, is a stunning affair that accomplished two things: 1) It made me sift through her previous work with fervor; 2) I learned that I knew almost nothing about music.
Hailing from St. Louis, Olsen booked it to Chicago to pursue a career in music. I read on good ol’ Wikipedia, and from quite a few other sources, that she aspired to be a pop star at some point, but let me tell you that I celebrate her pursuit down the polar opposite road with grand enthusiasm. I say this because she possesses an extraordinary talent that would have never seen the light of day if her plans for stardom succumbed to the corporate influence of a major label. Being told what to write and compose is like being told how to feel and behave. If Olsen went with her initial ambitions, I’m afraid we would’ve never had the privilege to explore this innate gift of hers.
“Doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done, still gotta wake up and be someone.” I don’t think there is a better way for My Woman to kick off than “Intern’s” opening. It echoes on top of the dreamy, synth-based production, and her laidback singing perfectly complements it. She doesn’t exercise her outstanding vocal range like she does in later tracks, but that doesn’t matter as it keeps this number conversational and relatable. “Never Be Mine” is a wild contrast that inspires fun with its cool and easy guitar, however this upbeat sound is very deceiving as she shares her incredible songwriting capabilities. This contrast reminds me of the unruly youngsters who drink n’ twerk to a frenetic club banger while being oblivious to what the artist is saying. I suppose it’s different here because I’m not drowning my innards in fireball and awkwardly pelvic-thrusting through a sea of rowdy patrons.
“Shut Up Kiss Me” operates with an accelerated pulse on all fronts. From the furious and twangy guitar to the I-don’t-have-time-for-this-shit speed of Olsen’s singing, we discover that the act of finding love with patience doesn’t always work. The following track, “Give It Up” is a healthy mix between the two previous songs. It integrates the energetic bellowing of both while harboring the contrast of “Never Be Mine”. In fact, “Give It Up” fails to distinguish itself because of these similarities. It works as an extension of professing your love like Olsen does here, yet it plays like a mutated clone with few discriminating differences.
Once again, we’re treated to a number whose sound doesn’t stray from the vivacious spirit from before, but lyrically this song pulls no punches. “Not Gonna Kill You” introduces what I love so much about Olsen: her uncanny ability to make your ears tune out the multi-layered production and focus on her words instead. She presents a poetic monologue that eventually becomes an engaging dialogue. Her lyrics are cryptic without being impossible to decipher, meaning she isn’t like the pretentious jerk who thinks he’s clever by speaking in riddles he created. Her lyrics are not about you registering a pretty voice, rather they encourage an advanced relationship between the hearing nerve that connects the cochlea to your brain. Her haunting, thought-provoking lyrics will inspire a level of critical thought that you weren’t ready to achieve.
“Heart Shaped Face” kicks off a trend that continues, for the most part, until My Woman’s final minutes. Each instrument dials it down to give Olsen’s voice a chance to breathe. That’s not to say the production ever overpowered the vocals on this album (I noticed it did sometimes on her previous efforts), it simply means that the power of her words triumph here. It’s amazing how she’s capable of conveying tension with her voice. Unlike my monotonous tongue, she understands the importance of weaving tone into the language in order to pack a punch. Some artists are as dry as a text message without dozens of emoticons. Olsen, quite frankly, could serenade me with “h3y wut r u up 2?”
Missy shared the music video for “Sister” a few weeks ago. I believe she nailed it when she likened the track to “a slow song that would play at a 1980s middle school dance.” Clocking in at 7 minutes and 46 seconds, it allows a lengthy opportunity to slow-dance; the poor chaperones, who discreetly signed up to help combat the school’s premarital sex epidemic, have no chance when an 8-minute song gives a room full of pre-teens ample time to maintain an erection. I may have ruined Missy’s interpretation with that image, but she still described my sentiment perfectly. “Sister” possesses a soft folk-rock sound that builds into something much more intense once the guitar solo kicks in. It bounces around so much that I must stick with the middle school dance scenario here. Perhaps it reflects the myriad of emotions a dancer feels when they’re hand-in-hand with their crush. Or it speaks to the many emotions of a wallflower waiting to be whisked away from headquarters to hit the dance floor with a lucky lady.
“Those Were the Days” is melancholic and musically gorgeous. However, I’m not a huge fan of Olsen’s breathy and nasal singing on this one. When vocalists turn in this kind of performance, I’m inclined to believe it’s a personal record that’s best reserved for a quiet night in. It seems like the kind of song you sing under your breath so you don’t annoy roommates or the next-door neighbors who are separated by a very thin wall. “Woman” abandons this technique with a slow build that amps the intensity with her tortured vocals. This is the extraordinary range I referred to earlier in this review, and “Woman” arguably features her best performance. She keeps it together in the track’s opening minutes with a calm and collected sound that echoes her pain. From there, it spirals downward into a howl that makes this track wonderfully chaotic. It’s hard to describe a song like this as being beautiful, but sometimes the best art comes from an individual whose existence is as dark as the chamber where her heart resides.
My Woman’s final track also happens to be my personal favorite. In “Pops”, Olsen’s pained lyrics ride on the heartsick keys of a piano. Maybe you were expecting some sort of redemption after an onslaught of musical pessimism, but Olsen is relentless here. In fact, she’s brutally honest and fearless. I don’t remember the last time I conquered depression over the course of a single album; happy endings are for Disney movies anyway. It shows that she will continue to struggle after the album fades to an uncomfortable silence. That’s what makes this album as a whole more relatable than anything in recent memory.
This album was a brilliant introduction to Angel Olsen for me. Assuming I don’t croak anytime soon, I would love to sit down and have a chat with her. If My Woman is any indication, it would be a productive session of digging deep into each other’s psyche and extracting the wondrous qualities that make us human. I will entertain that fantasy until my dying day, but for now I will continue to enjoy whatever music she puts out. My Woman provides a stupefying experience and it deserves my sincerest apologies for judging it prematurely. I also recommend that you don’t loop the album once you finish it. Its persistently grim nature suggests you let it marinate for a while before revisiting Olsen’s tortured world. She would understand as much as the next person that you need a moment alone to assess what just happened. She needs her moment alone, too.