A comprehensive, linear anthology of Angel Olsen miscellany, these portraits of the artist as a young crooner are not. Rather, the outtakes, demos, and rarities in this collection meander across Olsen’s career, capturing brief snapshots of the singer’s myriad musical guises with little regard for straightforward narrative. Phases documents Olsen’s dalliances with bedroom folk, garage country, and grunge resurrection, compiling these cutting-room remnants not with the unimaginative perfunctoriness of a biographer chronicling an artist’s odds and ends in the interest of being thorough, but with an intuition that figures Olsen’s artistic growth as a sinuous trajectory rather than a rigid mobility. At a modest 12 cuts, Phases runs the risk of painting Olsen as a dilettante, a noncommittal neophyte brushing with different musical stylings without fully inhabiting them. Yet the album — by virtue of its keen focus and perspicacious understanding of its subject’s artistry — is able to elucidate the through lines that link each cut here, as well as Olsen’s music as a whole.
Olsen has long possessed an aptitude for giving her music a sense of precariousness. At her most bombastic, she teeters on the edge of apoplexy, balancing between stoic poise and reckless ire, always a hair away from succumbing to the vitriol. Tracks like “Sweet Dreams” affirm this facility for careful sonic equilibrium. Caterwauling the phrase “It’s just left you on your own!” with cavernous reverb before yielding to a guitar solo that harks back to Ron Asheton and The Seeds’ Jan Savage, Olsen finds herself at the precipice of a cataclysm, retreating only upon achieving self-fulfillment: “I love you most when I first found love in myself.” Even on the quieter numbers, Olsen walks an emotional tightrope; “Tougher Than the Rest” features patently plaintive guitar strumming that accords with the despondency in her vocals, which toe the line between passing sorrow and abject despair. “If you’re looking for love/ Honey, I’m tougher than the rest,” she sings, her voice softly breaking on that first syllable of “tougher.” Never far from a breakdown, Olsen reiterates on Phases that her songs have always been marked with the ominousness of a singer in emotional flux.
For all its triumphs, this collection is marred by its most blatant, strident misstep: the bemusing “California.” Lyrically underwhelming, if not uncouth, the song bucks the conceit of its eponymous symbol (“On the way to California/ And I don’t mean California literally”) only to shift stiltedly between whimsy and austerity. Take, for instance, the first verse’s fanciful “In the silence dripping wet with kisses running down my lips” and compare it to the matter-of-factness in the second verse: “It is so delicately dreamt of, this immediate intimacy.” Yet the song’s most grating quality is Olsen’s incessant octave-vaulting yodels, equally jarring in their unexpectedness and frequency. While her vocal performance all but invokes unintentional laughter, the rest of the band plays with a staid sense of purpose, as if excluded from the joke.
Notwithstanding this foible, Phases nevertheless reaffirms its singer’s preeminence in the current milieu of indie rock. Pulling from material as recent as January and as early as 2010, the album aggregates Olsen’s previously unreleased work into a collection that vacillates between retrospection and contemporariness. Quietly reminding the listener just how far she’s come as a musician, Phases seamlessly moves between Olsen’s humble beginnings as a lone folkie and her current iteration as a Dustbowl Rocker leading a bolo-clad band of urbane hippies. A testament to Angel Olsen’s ever-evolving artistic sensibilities, Phases expertly traces the various modes of her career without losing sight of the larger picture. Never an album to dwell on just one checkpoint in Olsen’s oeuvre, the record mobilizes Olsen’s assertion from “Sans”: “Time moves so strangely when you’re moving all the time.”