Singer-songwriter Angel Olsen hails from St. Louis Missouri, where she was raised by a foster family. Because of the age difference between herself and her foster family, she often wondered about their childhood. Her interest in the 1950s has trickled through into her music – her full and commanding voice is surprisingly reminiscent of Roy Orbison, while she’s also sometimes compared to Patsy Cline.
Olsen’s first step into the big time was touring with Bonnie “Prince” Billie, singing backing vocals. She transitioned into a career as a performer with 2012’s Half Way Home, and she’s deservedly been a critical favourite ever since. Often her music revolves more around her vocal performances and emotional communication than around melody and hooks, but her continual evolution of style has meant that she’s never fallen into a rut.
Angel Olsen Album Reviews
2010, not reviewed
Olsen’s debut EP was released on cassette on 2010. The AllMusicGuide describes it as having “clumsy sincerity”. Olsen recorded it herself on GarageBand after failing to find the right producer, and it gained Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s attention.
Half Way Home
Olsen followed early EPs Strange Cacti and Lady of the Waterpark with her first fully-fledged album Half Way Home. It’s stark – there are low-key band arrangements on some tracks, but the focus is squarely on Olsen and her guitar. If you didn’t know the year of release, it would be difficult to guess – Olsen’s rich and resonant voice recalls the 1950s more than it resembles 2010s indie.
It’s difficult to differentiate the tracks on this low-key collection of songs, but the highlights are at the start. ‘Acrobat’ has the most arresting imagery – “You are the crazy acrobat/You are the witch/I am your cat” is a striking opening line. ‘The Waiting’ emphasises Olsen’s retro inclinations and could fit onto a 1960s Patsy Cline record.
Half Way Home puts the spotlight on Olsen’s voice and lyrics – it’s less dynamic than subsequent records, but there’s enough here to reward attentive listening.
Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Olsen beefed up her sound for her second album. She pulls a compelling bait-and-switch with the opening track ‘Unfucktheworld’, an acoustic song that could have come from Half Way Home, before hitting hard with an electric band in ‘Forgiven/Forgotten’. The dynamics that an electric band provide help to animate the raw edges of Olsen’s songs. She later told Rolling Stone that a lot of the raw anger of Burn Your Fire For No Witness was directed at ex-boyfriends who hadn’t been supportive of her artistic aspirations.
Olsen, working with producer John Congleton, is able to provide some diversity within the framework of a four-piece band. The sparse and hypnotic beauty of ‘White Fire’ contrasts with the visceral energy of ‘High & Wild’ and ‘Forgiven/Forgotten’. Olsen’s hooks aren’t as memorable as they’d be on subsequent records, and Burn Your Fire For No Witness ends sleepily.
It’s not consistently great, but the best moments of Burn Your Fire For No Witness hit hard with visceral heft.
Olsen’s vocals and intensity were impressive on her previous two records, but the songwriting catches up on My Woman. Her writing is far more diverse – ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ sounds like a 1960s girl group song buttressed with tougher guitars. Olsen’s also more comfortable in her personality – she seemed pigeonholed as a sad girl with a guitar on her first two records, but she’s more confident and sassy here. The music video for ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’, with Olsen roller-blading while wearing a tinsel wig, illustrates this change.
My Woman almost functions like two seperate EPs stuck together – muscular rockers on the first half, more atmospheric on the second. Opener ‘Intern’ uses keyboards to soften the sound, as Olsen launches into her lovely upper register before she reels off a string of guitar rockers. Songs like ‘Not Gonna Kill You’ and ‘Never Be Mine’ lollop along with chunky rhythm guitar and splashy drums. Two longer epics on the second side allow Olsen to stretch out – ‘Sister’ recalls the 1970s, like a dusty Neil Young and Crazy Horse guitar epic, fronted by Stevie Nicks. The more meditative ‘Woman’ provides a link to 2019’s All Mirrors.
My Woman was a breakout effort for Olsen, making the top ten on many end-of-year critics’ lists.
2017, not rated
I don’t have this collection of outtakes and b-sides, although I’ve heard the five tracks on the deluxe version of Burn Your Fire for No Witness. She also covers songs by Rory Erickson (‘For You’) and Bruce Springsteen (‘Tougher Than The Rest’).
While touring for My Woman, Olsen went through a messy breakup. This prompted her to return to her roots, a bare-bones singer-songwriter album recorded almost alone in Anacortes, Washington. A few months before release she decided to make an alternate version of the record with a twelve-piece string section as a contrast. The string-infused version was so powerful that it became the official All Mirrors, while the stark originals were released in 2020 as Whole New Mess.
On Instagram, Olsen stated she chose the title All Mirrors because she liked “the theme of how we are all mirrors to and for each other. Even if that is not the complete truth, still, there is always an element of personal projection in what we’d like to see in others and in all scenarios.” Strings often add warmth to songs, but here they’re unsettling.
The string arrangements are bold and inventive and are applied to songs that weren’t written with orchestration in mind. ‘What It Is’ is a bluesy shuffle that would usually remain unadorned, but the dramatic strings spin the song into unexpected emotional directions. Other songs suit the strings – the lush opening track and standout ‘Lark’ becomes the sweeping epic it needed to be. The songs evoke some unexpected things – the hypnotic strings in ‘All Mirrors’ recall the synths of New Order, while the closing ‘Chance’ recalls Roy Orbison.
All Mirrors is a gorgeous and beguiling record; Olsen still not repeating herself in a fascinating career.
Whole New Mess
2020, not yet reviewed
The original versions of the songs that became All Mirrors were recorded in Anacortes, Washington. Olsen used The Unknown, a former Catholic Church transformed into a recording studio by Phil Elverum.
St. Louis’ Angel Olsen is on a terrific streak right now – Big Time is her third great album in a row, each one improving upon the last. 2019’s excellent All Mirrors featured sweeping orchestration, while Big Time adds more country textures than before. It’s timeless with its stately country textures and sweeping strings. Olsen’s voice is given space to breathe – its vibrato-laden, like a throwback to the era of Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison. Big Time captures an emotionally fraught time in Olsen’s life – her father died three days after she came out to him, while her mother has also since passed away.
Olsen embraces country on the opening pair of tracks ‘All The Good Times’ and ‘Big Time’. The strings take over on the later tracks – Olsen uses her higher range on the woozily psychedelic ‘Through The Fires’. The emotional climax of ‘Right Now’ is one of the record’s most memorable moments.
Angel Olsen keeps improving with each release, but it’s tough to see how she could top Big Time.
Ten Best Angel Olsen Songs
All The Good Times
Not Gonna Kill You
Shut Up Kiss Me
High & Wild
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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