Though she may shy away from the attention-grabbing economy of the modern music industry, make no mistake: Angel Olsen is a visionary.
With two huge Coachella appearances coming up and an artistic profile that’s more visible than ever; the 31-year-old singer-songwriter has a legitimate shot to break through into the wider mainstream. Her upcoming show at the Music Box should allow San Diegans a glimpse at the poeticism and creative prowess that has garnered her a vast and adoring listenership.
During her mere 7 years as an active solo musician, Olsen has blossomed into a fully-formed artist, making her name as one of the most dependably inventive, truthful, and original songwriters of her generation. On her 2016 album My Woman, the St. Louis-born singer-songwriter tackled lofty subjects such as longevity and lost love with a wisdom and earnestness that defied her years, and with considerably more color and nuance than on past efforts. The sound of the record was one of hard-earned expressiveness and fun, with a wide range of larger-than-life lyrical subjects channeled through a stunning array of sonic textures.
Phases, a new collection of outtakes and B-sides from throughout her career, demonstrates the same inimitable charm that fans have grown to know and love about her but demonstrates a more homemade aesthetic that dutifully works to her benefit. It is as if the benevolent music gods gifted us both the most produced, detailed album of her career and its perfectly laid-back foil, all within the span of one year. With Phases, Olsen continues to experiment with a rich landscape of sounds, providing a welcome alternative to the homogenized aesthetics of pop and trap music today while staying true to her music’s vulnerable core.
Speaking candidly after her 2017 Austin City Limits performance, Olsen laid bare her philosophy on performance and motivation, “You try to fulfill your dreams,” she says. “You spend all this time learning about your dreams and then making them happen in your life, but the real work is keeping a sense of humor and remembering why you got into it in the first place.” That kind of self-awareness permeates all of Phases, which, even for a collection of demos and outtakes, demonstrates a remarkably strong sense of identity and cohesion- it seems as if it was simply a wealth of great unused material that was the reason for its existence.
“Fly On Your Wall” kicks off Phases remarkably well, recalling the inventive and luscious production style that permeates Deerhunter’s best work, balancing tense chords with a sense of longing in the verses until it eventually blossoms into a grandiose outro that’s among her most immersive and skillfully orchestrated song sections. The album’s promotional single “Special” showcases wonderful lo-fi experimentation and sneakily crushing lyrics delivered in Olsen’s trademark sultry drone.
“Only With You” uses an incredibly delicate arrangement as a vehicle for some classic country-inspired harmonies and heady realizations about life. “All Right Now” plays out like a quiet meditation, with organ, guitar, percussion and Olsen’s voice melding together beautifully as part of an intimately layered orchestration. “Sweet Dreams” is perhaps one of the most immediate songs Olsen’s catalog, sounding like a 60s ballad already crystallized in our collective memory due to its accessibility in both sentiment and production. Though most of Phases is experimental enough to keep us on our feet, it feels like the voice of a familiar friend.
“California,” not to be confused with Joni Mitchell’s classic (though perhaps it can serve as a spiritual successor) is a poetic, sprawling acoustic tune that showcases Olsen’s appreciation of classic songwriting dynamics pulled from folk music’s rich tradition; with her vulnerable, warbling falsetto delivering incredibly imaginative lyrics: “Like two children at first glance / We’re building castles in the sand,” she sings, “It’s so delicately dreamed of / this immediate intimacy.” Olsen’s turn of phrase is particularly strong on this song, a microcosm of the album’s consistently thought-provoking lyricism.
Even though My Woman was imbued with a lot of external praise for being politically-minded when it was released back in 2016, I don’t think many will make the same fundamental mistake with Phases, which feels refreshingly like music for its own sake. Olsen herself has said of My Woman, “ I don’t feel that I wrote the album thinking about an agenda, politically … I was writing about personal experiences and things I’ve been through.”
Olsen’s artistic gift is enough to garner near-universal appeal for those open-minded enough to give her music a spin. As a listener, you can read into her lyrics like an overzealous liberal arts student or just sit back and let her serenade you; I prefer the latter. Her simple chord patterns and sparse arrangements give way to spacious, effortless melodies that complement the directness of her lyrics and allow fans to dig as deep as they please, but I doubt she’s the kind to overanalyze – she makes subtly incredible and inspiring art that will last a long time. Tastes change, phases pass, but Angel Olsen is a certified treasure.
For those lucky enough to snag a ticket for Angel Olsen’s sold-out show at the Music Box this Thursday night, enjoy!