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.

Fearless (Taylor’s Version) Is A Beautiful Journey Through Old Memories: Review

It’s emotionally conflicting how reflective music can be; whether through life-connections that coincide with the teenage angst within or the nuance from an era where a difference in the music comes from the change in lyrics. Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is an amalgamation of these senses and more, as she takes us on part 1 of her journey of re-recording her first six albums to retain the masters of her first six albums. This new version brings matured vocal performances that carry personal-emotional experiences from the career and life she has had since the release of Fearless in 2008. However, this version is not that different from the original, outside minimal tweaks and maturity in her voice that adds a new perspective to the writing and production, with beautifully re-polished mixes.

Taylor Swift’s vocal maturity underlies her recent vocal performances, adding a different feel on the surface. It maintains the steady-balance it had on the genre spectrum, never truly feeling defined by one genre and further allowed her to expand her creative mind. Behind the voice and styles you could hear a part of her aspire to make music that isn’t held back by genre-conventions. A lot of her soft-sung material creates new depth as her voice brings in that sense of reflection and brings the harbored memories from when you first heard these songs. This makes songs like “Fifteen,” “The Way I Loved You,” and “Today Was a Fairytale,” more impactful because the perspective leads you through a nostalgia trip where one can dream about non-adulting things and focus on those dreamy aspirations like a fairytale romance or your future aspirations. The latter of that trio of songs being one is a definitively better version, but the youthful vocals from 2010 adds more characterization to the story. 

One constant that differentiates the two versions is the mainline producer. Nathan Chapman did the production and the harmonization, while Christopher Rowe, from Taylor’s band, did the work this time around. It shows, as they bring back most of her band to repurpose their parts; which in turn adds distinct layering that reminds of the old, but you’d rather stick with the new. You can hear it from the beginning as they play at the same pace – with more nuance on “Fearless” and “Change.” It makes her past singles standout out more on the surface allowing for many, a good cry. This was a sentiment I’ve come to know very well with the duet “Breathe,” featuring the incomparable Colbie Caillat, whose redone vocals brought a happy tear to my eye.

Overall, the production/engineering/mixing are slight improvements on the many rough patches the original version of Fearless had on some of the harmonization layers and mixing, but it was never much of a deterrent. These songs, like “Superstar,” and “Jump Then Fall,” don’t hit that dynamic threshold she has shown to hit on many occasions, but that may be due to the impactful nature behind the vocal performance, that at times feels jaunty and roots-like in the string section and that stands out more than the whole. This has been a constant thing that made these tracks less desirable at the time for me, and still does today. And for the most part, there are no real underlying differences in the construction and notes that are in sequence on the production, but there is a more authentic and rustic overlay that brings a different light to the way we intake these songs.

Amongst the 19-tracklist of the original tracks on Fearless: Platinum Edition are new songs she had in the vault. These new songs bring back her two collaborators from Folklore and Evermore, Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dressner to create country – like orchestration/production for Taylor to deliver what ran through her mind at the time of writing. As evident with the inner angst in the writing, you could tell there were some pots she didn’t want to stir further. “Mr. Perfectly Fine,” co-produced by Jack Antonoff, trades a lot of country overtures and implements them subtly in the string section, allowing the percussion to commandeer the production and take it to some poppy heights. 

Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is like the refurbished product that got mislabeled as such. So when you get it and you find out it is a brand new product that was never on the floor you are beyond ecstatic. The unpacking feels like you are doing it in Taylor Swift’s presence and it begins to feel like a brand new album, based on the complexities in the layering with the new mixing it goes through. It doesn’t have that same youthful energy that she emboldens with her voice at the time. But as it is with growth, the voice will be different and that’s how it creates this feeling like it is something new.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.