I first saw Angel Olsen perform in 2012, opening for Mount Eerie at the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Bridgeport, Chicago. Through the short set of a half dozen songs or so, Olsen – sparely accompanied by two other musicians – stared straight ahead, mostly expressionless. It’s been a while, but I think she might not have even blinked. In such an intimate space, the effect was chilling instead of boring; there was enough drama in the way her spare songs – all from her debut, Strange Cacti, and the then-recently-released Half Way Home – surrendered to Olsen’s formidable, room-engulfing voice.
In the four years since then, Olsen’s released two albums – 2012’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness and this year’s My Woman — that I liked well enough, I guess, but their increased instrumentation just took away from what I loved about her earlier work. Although I won’t wear down the grooves in my copy of My Woman, Olsen realized that a different kind of album requires a different kind of show, and adjusted her performance appropriately.
The stage was overcrowded with accompaniment this time around – adding a lot of volume, if not detail, but really nice volume – but more importantly, Olsen didn’t just stare into the crowd with that blank, strangely (cactus) affecting gravitas from 2012. She bantered, smiled, connected, made a few jokes at her own expense: a new (like, new to me since four years ago) performative dynamism for the new variety of emotions and sounds that characterizes the second half (way home) of her discography. The crowd ate it up. People in front of the stage were singing along (after everybody had had some drinks), shorter people were riding taller people’s shoulders to get a better view, and everyone cheered enough at the end that it almost seemed like the encore – which included My Woman’s first single, “Intern” – wasn’t a foregone conclusion.
It was a humbly rad show, much like the kind someone who wasn’t currently in the process of blowing up – as much as anyone playing at The Loving Touch and getting interviewed on NPR can blow up – might do. My only disappointment, really, was the lack of older songs. In her NPR bit, Olsen compared her older work to a college student or something who just read French existentialists and wanted to talk about how sad everything is all the time. Her newer work, she said, was like that same student after they’ve gotten a job: they wanted to talk about existentialism sometimes, maybe, but also just have fun and not be so serious. It was a smartly self-aware analysis, and the implication was that she’s in a good place: it’s easier, she said, to play a sad song even if you’re not sad right then, than to play a happy song when you’re sad. Next time, I hope she’s ecstatic enough to play some of her sadder, older work.