MY WOMAN is nothing short of a quantum leap for Angel Olsen. In a year in which some of the industry’s biggest hitters have come out for a swing, Olsen has knocked it out of the park. The album’s predecessor, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, was a critically acclaimed breakout for Angel’s moody folk musings. But it was also a trap. Few archetypes are as readily idealised as the image of the sad, beautiful, misunderstood ‘girl at the bottom of the well’ – as one critic called Olsen. With the album’s distant, sparse guitar and fuzzy, downbeat vocals, you can see where the image was drawn from; but here, with My Woman’s scorching guitar solos and passionate wails, Angel burns bright with the fiery determination to prove what kind of artist, and what kind of woman, she really is.
Olsen’s music is no less predisposed to dwell on the anxieties and indignations that marked her previous works, but here it is carried out with an assertiveness and confidence, vocally and musically, that allows the nascent sense of self-acceptance on Burn Your Fire to blossom into full bloom. Her voice, a beguiling, highly flexible tool to begin with, is here freed from lo-fi genre trappings and expresses itself with its full charisma and power. From the cool, caustic delivery of Intern to the defiant yet bristlingly sensual Woman, Olsen projects her personality across every song, daring anyone to try typecasting her.
Musically, this is an album that abounds with the same daring and confidence. Olsen caused a stir when the album’s opener Intern was released in advance – its icy synths and her shiny, silver wig surprising many expecting more of the same. The rest of the album is less of a stylistic about-face, but it is filled with musical statements no less powerful. Expanding on previous tracks like Hi-Five and High and Wild, MY WOMAN kicks into gear in explosive style with the fuzzy, 60s power-pop of Never Be Mine and Shut Up Kiss Me; Give it Up and Not Gonna Kill You round off a tenacious, punchy opening half, one that’s a far cry from previous tendencies to lapse into extended periods of sonic somnambulism.
Instead, every song here overflows with ideas, sounds and energy. One of the beauties of MY WOMAN is that no song ever feels static. They never lapse too deeply into a certain mode – each song evolves, and blossoms into something stranger, harder, sadder or smarter than it seemed. Every song’s style is a fluid, changeable thing. A track can spark into life just as it begins to drift, reinvigorating even the slower moments. Shifts in tempo, tone and scale make every song compelling – from start to finish.
It’s a trick that she didn’t pull off regularly enough on previous works, which too often slipped into patterns of hard and fast followed by long and slow. Those definitions don’t exist to the same extent here.
By contrast, MY WOMAN is impeccably structured, with those slower patches coming as the respite they should be. Moments to focus more on Olsen’s lyricism and her variety of vocal moods.
Although the guitarwork – particularly the stabs of sound that punctuate Sister and the surf-rock crunch of Shut Up Kiss Me – continues to be one of the foundations of Olsen’s music, here it is more often the nimble basslines that are the core of her songs.
Across the longer, slower second side, MY WOMAN takes on a steady groove that hooks deep and never lets up. On these slower songs the sea-change between this and her previous works is perhaps most stark. The jazzy, almost folk meets trip-hop style of tracks like Heart Shaped Face and Those Were the Days is perhaps the best showcase of her newfound range and subtlety. Slotting in with the dual centre-pieces of Sister and Woman, MY WOMAN’s dynamism and musical depth is a staggering development.
In the downtime those basslines provide to her loud-quiet dynamic, Olsen’s lyrics come into clearer focus, and, aided by braver vocal performances, gives epics like Sister and Woman room for outbursts as excoriating as the musical swells. There’s a power to moments such as Olsen’s demand that her subject understand what makes her a woman that just wasn’t there on previous works.
Where previously Olsen hid her musings behind fuzz and lo-fi production, here she has a change of style and attitude. It results in work that, even when it expresses old themes of dysfunction and regret, injects them with a defiance and self-assurance that can transform their meaning entirely. There is a marked change to a song like Give It Up, which begins in strident style with the claim -“It hurts to be around you” – and older work like White Fire, with its morose intonation that “Everything is tragic, it all just falls apart”. The sense here is that Olsen is ready to own both sides to what she shows here – the depressive, the insecure, and the defiant, the feminist, the assured.
Olsen owns her style as a whole now in a way that she never quite did before. It’s something you can see even in the visuals of the album. The videos, self-directed, range from the cool, sultry Intern, to the spunky attitude of Shut Up Kiss Me, and, then, to the expansive, cathartic Sister – a video of landscapes, tears, and, finally, a smile. Moments like this lend to the sense that, although always a moving lyricist, one of the great achievements of MY WOMAN is that Olsen now really sounds as compelling as she is.
It results in a work that is among the most confident, satisfying and immediately brilliant that I’ve heard for some time. In a year in which so many of the year’s big albums have emerged as cool, slow-burn growers – challenging listeners to discern whether they really are deep or just sombre and slow enough to seem it -, Olsen’s audacity to create an album as charismatic and invigorating as this is truly refreshing.