Albums of 2016 (#5): Angel Olsen – My Woman
Sometimes being painted into a corner can be a good thing, and My Woman is a work that pushes Angel Olsen's diverse pop genius to the fore
When Angel Olsen made a genuine breakthrough in 2014, with her third full-length Burn Your Fire for No Witness, the press reaction amounted to a curious tidal wave of backhanded compliments. The record was showered with praise from all quarters, but it wasn’t the razor-sharp wit of Olsen’s lyrics, nor her disarmingly keen ear for melody that was largely coming in for the most plaudits.
Instead, writers had a veritable field day with typecasting her as the quintessential tortured singer-songwriter, drawing a straight line between the scratchy production and the rawer side of the lyrical approach in order to position Olsen somewhere between the two. It feels, in retrospect, like a classic case of putting two and two together and making five.
Olsen was frequently reticent, even abstruse, in interviews around the release of Burn Your Fire for No Witness, and it’s probably little wonder; hosts at one Chicago radio station largely ignored her for most of her allotted segment, talking about her rather than with her, before ludicrously asking, “So, Angel, your music is kind of like a girl at the bottom of a dark well – how do you feel about that?”
Two years on, Olsen has adapted. If Burn Your Fire for No Witness – which balanced light and dark far better than the critics would have you believe – left some room for ambiguity as to her propensity for casting a wide net both thematically and stylistically, 2016's follow-up My Woman removes any shred of doubt.
This is a record that strikes a beguiling balance between old-fashioned and cutting-edge. It’s not often, these days, that you come across albums happy to adhere to the idea of two conflicting sides. My Woman’s opening half is very much the pop period, from the icy atmospherics of opener Intern – “I made that the first track on purpose, to fuck with people and make them expect a synth record,” said Olsen to The Skinny back in September – to the irresistible perma-chorus of Shut Up Kiss Me.
Meanwhile, Never Be Mine is a throwback to the 60s in absolutely all of the right ways. “I taught that to the band in 30 minutes,” Olsen recalled. “It was the last day in the studio, and I didn’t really want to spend it running through a whole new song, but Justin [Raisen, producer] said, 'Listen, my wife and I have been fucking dancing to this demo for weeks, you have to get it down.'”
It’s on the flipside that things take a turn, both in terms of approach and ambition. As much as anybody might have loved Burn Your Fire for No Witness, and as blown away as anybody who caught Olsen on tour might have been by her arresting take on one of the most-covered songs of all time – Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams – who knew she’d go on to pay tribute to that band with such verve on her next LP? Sister is surely the track of 2016, a near-eight minute epic that builds from fragile confessional to the sort of soaring, Californian rock that only ever comes in glorious technicolor. As much as Olsen might try to play down the significance of the fact that My Woman was cut in Los Angeles, the vintage guitar work on that particular song frankly begs to differ.
Woman springs for similar territory, also troubling the eight-minute mark and both adapting and eschewing the smoky jazz of the track that goes before it, Those Were the Days. Olsen, for her own part, was adamant that both the song’s title and that of the album itself were meant to be empowering, but not necessarily explicitly feminist; “I just thought My Woman sounded badass, but it’s one of those things that comes out of joking around with a boyfriend; him saying 'my woman!' It’s kind of degrading, but also flirtatious.”
By the time proceedings close with Pops, a searing piano ballad, My Woman has run the gamut in terms of both sound and content. More important, though, are Olsen’s motivations; she aimed to make such an all-encompassing record not because she felt she needed to, more just to let everybody know that she was well capable of pulling it off.
This is, by a very long margin, the finest album of the year by an out-and-out singer-songwriter, and tangible proof that the period immediately following your breakthrough is no time for conservatism; instead, Olsen doubled down creatively, and the results – however stylistically diffuse – are invariably brilliant.