“When the singing stops, it hurts” — was the thought that ran through my mind when, as an unsuspecting Leonard Cohen fan at a tribute gig, I first saw Antony Hegarty perform live. Angel Olsen’s voice, though by no means similar to Hegarty’s, embodies the same addictive quality. It’s an extraordinary instrument best described as a cri de coeur, both a constant changeling and completely unique: airy to profound, sweet to harsh, from one moment to the next. There’s a sublime little sob that’s almost but not quite a crack — though perhaps it’s through this crack-that-isn’t that the light gets in.
Olsen’s Strange Cacti EP was one of the most perfect and, paradoxically, most rough-hewn releases of 2010. Half Way Home, her first full-length, is more eclectic and chiaroscuro than Strange Cacti’s melancholy; it’s peppered by upbeat moments like “The Waiting,” or the flamenco sensibility of “The Sky Opened Up.” In being so, the album has a rambling quality that is a strength in a quite particular way; and over time, the songs that are less immediate also reveal their subtle charms.
Waiting is a theme not only on the aforementioned eponymous track, but also “Can’t Wait Until Tomorrow.” So there’s something on Half Way Home about spaces inbetween:
- neither origin nor destination
- womb and birth, to not-quite-childhood
- kinda-requited love
- ignorance and knowledge (producing wisdom?)
- the everyday destruction of the world, and
- the view of death from life.
These spaces are still and quiet, but they also involve a gentle movement. Olsen’s loping guitar rhythms persistently remind one (well, this one) of Leonard Cohen’s “Ballad of the Absent Mare.” There is something more generally appropriate in that comparison; though Half Way Home is not frontier-mystical as such, it holds the same sense of open spaces, of grief roughly sutured with pleasure. As Olsen points out on “Acrobat,” she’s not a moralist, but she is a down-to-earth Transcendentalist — and one who also transcends the bounds of (the) earth, on songs like “Lonely Universe” and “The Sky Opened Up.” To reconcile more dualisms, the end is in the beginning; opener “Acrobat” echoes the melody of Strange Cacti’s devastating “Tiniest Lights,” while the album closes with “Tiniest Seed,” a reference to what is past as well as to fragile fecundity, futurity.
Lyrically, too, we’re somewhere mediating the close and the recognized with the open unknown. Olsen has a near-unique trick of taking a trope that seems familiar from countless pop tunes (“I don’t mind if I am completely lost when I’m with you”) and then following it with a line that turns it inside out (“I am always somewhat found in the things that we do”). Similarly, there are moments that seem gulpingly bare when introduced (“Acrobat’s” “I love the way your voice is sex” or “Miranda’s” rehearsal of that warning), but that resolve themselves into nuance that is familiar in a more idiosyncratic sense (“Don’t you know you’re wanted in fifty states/ I love you dear, but it’s not up to me”).
It’s a heady experience, when added up, but not by using the cold logic of arithmetic. The Transcendentalists were looking for a man [sic] who trusted to sentiments and who ate angels’ food. I think we’ve found her.