Angel Olsen, Forever Love

No conversation of love in art is complete without Angel Olsen. We explore how her views on love have shifted over the last decade, informing the shape of her identity as she came out

Feature by Noah Barker | 07 Feb 2024
  • Angel Olsen

Love is control over time, revelations of self-worth during the eyes of storms, or, in the midst of the siren howl of Angel Olsen, the sinew of one’s identity. Every season of your life is stuck in captivity with two people, that being the unfound, unknown self, and whichever other is illuminating your depths by contrast alone. Across Olsen’s imposing, alluring oeuvre, how you live and how you love are as closely intertwined as their spellings; one’s identity can be bereft of context without the challenge or foil of a love turned sour. However, from the outset, Olsen has held love as being the ultimate projection, a reflection of what already exists behind enraged or sullen eyes; listening to her explain this throughout nearly a decade of my life would surely have her be frustrated with my lack of attention until recently. Her commanding language of love, full of endless searching yet confident enough to tell instead of ask, was foreign to me until experience revealed its cornerstone: you are the love you give, without modification, without compromise. 

Tracing her vulnerable command of the topic, the solemn, rustic ballads stationed within her debut Half Way Home set a tremendous precedent. The Waiting finds strength and subtle sweetness in the setting of standards; 'Sometimes I need you to be the one to call', Olsen croons, eventually shouting. Love is a matter of the language you understand throughout life, what a plea can offer about someone that a question can’t reveal. Listening to this track and its parent record I see the subject as an austere field in winter, usually since that is the setting I’m physically in when I return to it; the motifs of seeds growing amidst hardships and vast, cosmic wastelands gain body and shape, where love is a physical realm. More often than not, it’s also a reason for being, one foretold on opener Acrobat but fully dismantled on her sophomore record’s own opener Unfucktheworld.

With a stark atmosphere closer to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska than anything that should find itself on NPR in the early 2010s, Olsen’s self-analysis here is tenderly morose. As her love for this other fades, so too does her sense of self; 'If all the trouble in my heart would only mend / I lost my dream, I lost my reason all again'. Her eventual understanding of 'It’s not just me for you / I have to look out too' etches into stone the other end of standard setting, that love rears its head in specific ways because we are individuals with needs first. If that need is another, the longing can begin accordingly. It’s a track that foregrounds loss of self on an otherwise electric and assured record, a nugget of bereaved wisdom to mull over in the oncoming minutes. The world ends sporadically and consistently, yet lives are had and hills of arguments built for the future to die on will lay steadily.

The region between begging and commanding is counfoundingly thin, as is mirrored later on Shut Up Kiss Me, from her benchmark My Woman. Every line here is a gem of confidence, yet under the control of intense passion. There’s the anxious tilt that one can only feel this passionately if they’re beholden to a love above them, that to own someone is a form of giving oneself away. On either side of it in the tracklist are expansively contradictory songs; Never Be Mine struggles with soul-crushing longing for the angelic other and Give It Up pushes that someone into the path of a combine with compassionate attitude. It’s concisely messy and forever reflective.

All of these experiential lessons point to why Sister is Olsen’s masterpiece, a definitive benchmark on queer love and self-knowledge. Years before her official coming out, the track functioned as such, grappling with her identity and distilling her worldview in eight minutes where most can never piece themselves together in a lifetime. She may not have completely, but as she describes her infatuation, she uses this love to lull the listener into what it means at her core; 'I want to live life, I want to die right...' she trails off. There’s silence, a void, then the shimmer of a guitar and she completes her thought, '...Next to you'. Despair is forgone and the closing refrains of 'All my life I thought I’d change' fill the void with an unsuppressable passion. The other may continue to elude her, but she now understands their role with breathtaking clarity.

Olsen is the teacher, we are the receivers; she is the rarity of a songwriter able to examine the size of every heart involved, much more the people they’re connected to. To live in truth to oneself may be to love honestly, to beg for nothing and to command for what you know you are. She is forever searching, never asking.