Angel Olsen My Woman

[Jagjaguwar; 2016]

Styles: love games, modern possession, domestic western
Others: Cindy Walker, Nancy Sinatra, Joni Mitchell, Dolly Parton

Love has a tendency to dredge up sides of ourselves that sometimes we’d rather leave unspoken. Our impulses from childhood, our insecurities, our instinctual behavior, even if learned, seems like a thorny and integral part of our distorted fabric — the lines where our genders end and our egos begin can be nigh on invisible, leaving us helplessly caught in a fog over how we stand in relation to one another. So often our relationships devolve into sick plays for power, into acknowledgments of the act of control, and we exercise this strange need for dominance not only against each other but against ourselves, as if we were all just animals trapped in one another’s cages.

Angel Olsen has always conveyed this sublime despair of love through her music, specifically via her soul-crushing, gracefully morbid voice. The ultimate dichotomy of Olsen’s work lies in the stunning force of will that produces deep and unholy vocal performances, and the powerlessness that she is so often possessed by in her lyrics. Many of Olsen’s most touching songs are testaments to that empty feeling of loving someone who barely even considers your existence (her coming-out album Half Way Home opened with Olsen declaring, “I want to be the bed you mess”), and on her newest and most triumphant record to date, My Woman, Olsen’s analogies of objectification are elevated into rallying cries for freedom, both drowned in Olsen’s delirious lonesomeness and ecstatic in their shimmering delivery.

Like her previous albums, My Woman valiantly carries the torch of golden age country-folk into the modern day. If Half Way Home was all Joan Baez and silky moonlight, and Burn Your Fire For No Witness was the unfurling, mussy underbrush, My Woman is like the rising sun, its presence remote yet immensely powerful. Although the songs on My Woman feel written for passing moments, they come with all the bombast and drama of a theatrical set piece, leaping from costume to costume without losing focus on Olsen’s grander design. Whether she’s going full Nicolas Winding Refn on synth-drenched opener “Intern” or pulling a girl-group square dance on “Never Be Mine,” Olsen emanates a desperation that is at once quiet and enveloped in confusion. In some ways, her manner of songwriting is old-fashioned, married to a romantic notion of music and culture from the past. But even more so, Olsen is like much of us, caught between the stories our parental figures told us and the world that we actually live in, searching for the meeting point between being humble and knowing what’s ours.

Crucially, Olsen’s stories of love and abandonment have always been addressed to some kind of other, her sense of self in constant construction and relation to the subjects that she writes her songs to. Even at her most forceful, like on the campy, single-ready “Shut Up Kiss Me,” Olsen’s demands to “shut up, kiss me, hold me tight” are gradually revealed to be the impassioned pleas of an ex-lover who hasn’t quite found the strength to move on. Likewise, the deceptively catchy “Never Be Mine” involves a triangle of unrequitement, with Olsen acting as both the pining singer and the sympathetic object of a third party’s affection. Although she wants her admirer to understand that he’s not alone, more than anything, Olsen admits to her crush, “I would watch you, I would watch you/ Turn and walk away/ I would watch you, look right through me/ Right through every word that I say.” It’s a strangely submissive refrain, pained in its unfulfilled romance yet still taking pleasure in the pure act of desire; even in the face of her own weakness, Olsen allows herself the final laugh.

But My Woman isn’t all one-way heartaches. As the album unfolds, Olsen shifts her turmoil back onto her muses, questioning their own stakes in the relationship with the same Freudian psychology that she applies to herself. “Was it me you were thinking of, all the time when you thought of me?” she asks on “Heart Shaped Face,” “Or was it your mother?/ Or was it your shelter?” On the Mellotron ballad “Woman,” Olsen broadens the conversation to a question of her entire gender, not giving an answer so much as posing the challenge, “I dare you to understand/ What makes me a woman.” Without ever denying herself agency or wielding her power against others violently, Olsen stands at the uncomfortable precipice of womanhood, struggling to maintain composure as the forces around her threaten to simplify and undermine who she is. It all reaches a head on “Sister,” a slow-burning, eight-minute road-jammer as lyrically mysterious as it is musically jaw-dropping. As the climax approaches with Olsen murmuring over and over again, “All my life I thought I’d change,” a guitar solo swells to “Oh! Sweet Nuthin” levels of glory, embodying Olsen’s conflicted, wistful plight where words simply can’t. That My Woman exists in such a place of in-betweenness without losing its strummable, carefree composition is a testament to Olsen’s mastery of her element.

The album closes with “Pops,” an absolutely brutal piano number that ends with Olsen moaning, “I’ll be the thing that lives in the dream when it’s gone.My Woman is a record coated in the sounds of radio’s past, a potpourri of classic rock gestures and doo-wop sway, yet Olsen’s mindset is anything but nostalgic. Olsen is caught in this moment, in all of its dark inconsistencies and promises of a better world, and rather than offering us a clear statement or dogma to carry forward, she’s given us a collection of songs as willfully gorgeous and twisted as life itself. These are shadowy bedroom anthems, a detailed portraiture of the obstacles we still face as a society, and yet there is a joy coursing through this music that is undeniable and inspiring. There may not be clear answers to the riddles of identity and agency posed on My Woman, but even in all of its knotty uncertainty, to be caught in Olsen’s web is such a sweet place to be.

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