Angel Olsen – Big Time: Review

After reinventing herself with different aspects of pop–All Mirrors–and past stark and flaky atmospheres in folk and rock, Angel Olsen continues to shape her art, making music resonant with her identity on her new album, Big Time. In an interview with Pitchfork for the album, Angel Olsen said, “I have learned to let go of the labels and embrace what I’m feeling in the moment. And I ended up making a country record, or something like a country record.” Big Time is emotionally potent and sonically harmonious, bringing new dimensions to her artistry. It skews from modern country conventions, rooting itself in more traditional country, giving her vocal performance depth, reeling you with captivating emotional performances and a sense of whimsy.

Big Time is a powerful emotional experience. Since the last time Angel Olsen spoke to us, she has gone through personal change–from coming out to the loss of her mother–Olsen brings a heavy platter of thoughts that expands on her story. In doing so, Olsen subdues the glitz of overly produced country music, and she takes an extraordinary approach that elevates the emotional gravitas. It grips you from the first song, “All The Good Times;” the drums reel you in with melancholic bravado from Olsen, producing a feel for the direction of Big Time. The album is reminiscent of a traditional style from the 50s/60s/70s era, taking unique paths to actualize them to life. The creativity within the construction of the songs brings elements that enforce its stagey presence. The engineering is crisp, creating a foundation in a smooth crescendo where each section becomes audibly potent in creation, from the brass and horn sections to the percussion and strings.

Adjacently, Angel Olsen beautifully delivers fantastical and starry country ballads creating a subtle balance based on context. One moment she’s reflecting on moments before the loss of a loved one in “This Is How It Works,” another she’s embracing the joy of love from her significant other in “All the Flowers.” She ranges in tone, creating a more somber ballad with the latter and letting the vocals carry the slightly lowly production, unlike the former, where its strength comes on both ends vibrantly. Angel Olsen notes her sensibilities effervescently, aiming at encapsulating conflicting emotions with ease. It’s an album that feels true to itself, never toeing a line of obscurity. She delivers potent and poignant material, increasing the length of our emotional response from listening to the album, and it wouldn’t be right of me if I didn’t say Big Time brings tears, whether metaphorical or literal.

The eponymous track, “Big Time,” offers a flurry of distinguishingly haunting but starry string orchestration, bringing this sense of accepting identity. It’s a sonic consistency that is eloquently heard through some of the softer songs, like “Dream Thing” and “Go Home.” Angel Olsen brings over arching dualities that offer connectivity between artist and listener as her words hit closer to the heart. Olsen sings about identity, love, mistakes, and loneliness, bringing that sense of connectivity through memories and allowing time to act as a concept that prolongs our actions and inactions. She has a way to get your hips swaying slowly, bringing the spirit of an old country-blues bar local performance while reflecting these thematic complexities effectively. It’s something she reflects eloquently through her accompanying short film; it doesn’t lose focus, weaving a story about identity and the fear of taking major leaps reflective of it. It tells the story of an LGBTQI+ couple, one of whom hasn’t come out to their parents, especially when they are ill–eventually, they pass, creating friction from emotions and using time as a means to escape and reflect.

That’s where Angel Olsen hits her stride. She grabs her strengths and works to endure them longer when evolving. It isn’t Olsen’s first foray into country, weaving elements of Alt-Country/Folk into the aesthetic of 2012’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness. However, the difference lies in how components of the genre get used within the production. Its percussion-string heavy style doesn’t speak hoedown like “High & Wind” off Burn Your Fire For No Witness; it’s instead centered on traditionalism, creating room for the vocals to blossom and radiate with ethereal melodies. It’s reminiscent of the early tempos of Linda Ronstadt, Patsy Cline, and others of that era–think “Long, Long Time” by Ronstadt or “Crazy” by Cline. But Angel Olsen can establish her identity depending on the song’s context as they play to the depth of her heart. It’s resonant with the eponymous short film, which brings to light the narrative arc. It captures the essence of the style, elevating it to new heights, delivering Olsen’s best album to date.

Big Time is both transformative and emotionally gripping. It is rare for me to love a country album in its entirety, and this is one of those rare occasions. From its start to end, I was grasping tears while listening to Angel Olsen deliver whimsical melodies. Olsen continuously breaks down walls of vulnerability, specifically musically, but now it’s more potent. Similar to the many, I’m here for it. There are no skips in this emotional journey we take with Angel Olsen, and I hope you take that journey too.

Rating: 10 out of 10.

Angel Olsen – Aisles EP: Review

This current phase of Angel Olsen’s career has been on an incline with beautifully composed production and auspicious vocal performances. Her last album, All Mirrors, was another transcendent move in her career as she took a path toward chamber pop overtones instead of different shades of indie rock. And it leaves me wondering, how far can this go before feeling worn. The answer is: not long at all. Angel Olsen’s new EP Aisles takes the chamber pop overtones from her last two projects and weaves it with subtle psychedelic undertones, in what is one of the more unique covers projects heard since Weezer’s from early 2019.

Past covers performed by Angel Olsen have shown the authenticity of her performance, giving each song a proper balance of care and fun. Aisles contain some of that authenticity in recorded fashion, but it starts to lack nuance. Most songs get a complete makeover as three songs mirror the original closely without interfering with her vision. Unfortunately, these three songs aren’t enough to shift the overall feeling of Aisles from a fun collection of covers in your pocket to be somewhat forgettable because the minimal efforts to be different don’t stand out as much as an American Idol audition.

Like the Weezer album, Aisles contains covers of iconic 80s new wave and synth-pop songs. The only difference is Aisles checks in with five songs as opposed to ten and is slightly better. Of the songs, the ones you’d expect to translate, with Angel Olsen’s new sonic direction, do, like Alphaville’s “Forever Young,” which already works as a lively synth-pop ballad. Angel Olsen’s rendition follows a similar path and is the one that is as close to the original compared to the rest of the tracklisting. Angel Olsen brings a hollow and operatic tone, taking away the percussion for a nuanced ballad. It is one of the two best covers on the EP, along with “Eyes Without A Face.”

Angel Olsen’s cover of “Eyes Without A Face,” by Billy Idol, ubiquitously stands out. It resembles the original in certain aspects of the production, except for the second half. What is so memorable about the original is how it does a complete 180 in the second half. And like the Idol version, Angel Olsen follows a similar crescendo with her pitches as she switches between similar melodies and the unique take on the second half. While the Billy Idol version does a 180 from a piano ballad to a pure new wave sound, Olsen lets her voice becomes the conductor. It shifts into an operatic and psychedelic vocal solo that takes you to new worlds, like Idol’s did with the fans he surprised with the switch.

As an avid fan of new wave and synth-pop, the level of intrigue increased after seeing the tracklisting. One of the first singles Angel Olsen released was a cover of “Gloria” by Umberto Tozzi, made famous by Laura Branigan three years later. To say it was underwhelming is an overstatement. The track is a total 180 from the original as Angel gives this the chamber pop makeover. Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” has vibrant horn and synth arrangements intertwining with disco undertones, making it a monstrous dance/club song. Olsen’s version is the antithesis as it contrasts the tame soft-disco styling of the original Italian version and the colorful American version. It comes across as a hard listen with atmospheric piano keys and strings, common for chamber pop, while Branigan and Tozzi’s version is charming. It’s the missing piece from her cover, which makes it as forgettable as “If You Leave.”

Similarly, “Safety Dance” fails to translate. “Safety Dance” is a quirky and novelty new wave song about rebelling. Angel Olsen stays in tangent with her current moody and atmospheric chamber-pop sound, albeit missing the mark. The tempo shift makes it hard to distinguish the fun-carefree nature behind “Safety Dance.” Song covers are supposed to be unique and done with the singer’s perspective; however, Angel Olsen gets blinded by style. It follows her along as the song “If You Leave” feels like a placeholder. It doesn’t come across as striking and passes by quickly and leaves you with a great closer in “Forever Young.”

Angel Olsen isn’t privy to delivering forgettable work, but it’s hard to match her spirit in comparison. Trying to understand her vision became excruciating, especially with “Gloria” and “Safety Dance.” It left me wondering why she would make a slightly redundant-sounding EP, considering the best songs have slight repeat value. 

Rating: 5.5 out of 10.