ANGEL OLSEN: HALF WAY HOME (2012)
1) Acrobat; 2) The Waiting; 3) Safe In The Womb; 4) Lonely Universe; 5) Can't Wait Until Tomorrow; 6) Always Half Strange; 7) You Are Song; 8) Miranda; 9) The Sky Opened Up; 10) Free; 11) Tiniest Seed.
Strange, strange times, these 2010s — everything is alive, everything is dead, everything is in between, call it the Schrödinger decade if you wish. Here is Angel Olsen, a fresh face (although, as of 2017 when I am writing this text, she already has a six-year solo career behind her back, a time span that was enough for the Beatles to proceed from ʽLove Me Doʼ to ʽA Day In The Lifeʼ) who wants to put her own spin on the genre of acoustic-folk-based singer-songwriting, taking her cues from Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, and maybe all these lesser known and more poorly remembered female heroes of the past like Laura Nyro and Janis Ian. A genre whose heyday ended about four decades ago, but hey, it's the 2010s, a time when anything goes, when a nostalgic revival can no longer be called a nostalgic revival, because «nostalgic» presumes a clear distinction between past, present, and future, and we no longer have one. Future is past, past is future, and present is an ephemeral piece of nonsense.
Anyway, Angel Olsen. We do not know that much about her yet, except that she comes from St. Louis, Missouri, she sang backup vocals for Will Oldham for a short while, she released her first homebrewn recordings on the short self-produced EP Strange Cacti in 2011, and she got picked up by the tiny indie label Bathetic Records in 2012. Half Way Home, her proper LP debut, appeared one year later, and featured eleven songs that were mostly written, performed, and recorded by Olsen on her own, with occasional help from some of Oldham's musicians (Ben Boye on organ and Emmett Kelly, also the leader of The Cairo Gang, on guitar). Being quite low-key, the record did not make much of an impact other than on an occasional admirer-reviewer (Laura Snapes wrote a gushing novel on the album at Pitchfork), but now that we all have the opportunity to compare it with Olsen's most recent major success, I think it's only fair to say that the lady comes out fully fleshed-out and accomplished here — skipping the ʽLove Me Doʼ stage altogether and aiming straight for a Rubber Soul kind of result, if not higher.
Of the four possible aspects of the budding singer-songwriter — musician, melodicist, lyricist, vocalist — I think it is fairly safe to cross out the first two from the start. Olsen plays a nice acoustic guitar, and has clearly excelled at her homework studying those Drake and Mitchell chords, but, like 99% of indie kids these days, exploring non-trivial, innovative ways of riding her instrument is clearly not a priority (admittedly, it is not even clear what a «non-trivial, innovative way» of playing folk-based acoustic guitar would sound like these days). Likewise, the melodies aren't particularly interesting because most of these instrumental and vocal patterns had been worn thin the aforementioned four decades ago; the only point of curiosity is that, from time to time, she also tries to integrate a retro pop sound in the tapestry, taking occasional cues from Roy Orbison (especially in the vocal hook department) and from those British kids who were all right back in the day (funny thing, every time she sings "sometimes..." on ʽFreeʼ, I feel a strong urge to finish it for her with "...I feel I gotta get away", though, of course, the majority of Angel's young fans from today probably won't even recognize the reference).
As a lyricist, she's okay. Technically, this is an album of love songs; almost every single song is a soliloquy addressed to an imaginary partner, and the real good news — maybe the one thing that makes me instantaneously biased in favor of the record — is that, believe it or not, this is not one of the miriads of «break-up albums» that singer-songwriters tend to be associated with these days. The basic underlying concept here is that of love offering temporary relief and respite from fear and darkness: the heroine was ʽSafe In The Wombʼ before finding herself in this ʽLonely Universeʼ, surrounded by strange and ugly things, and now she is searching for safety, tranquility, and understanding that cannot be reached on one's own. Not an entirely new concept, of course, but at least a fresher one than a ten thousandth attempt at venting your frustration over an inexperienced teenage love affair, and, most importantly, without annoyingly self-aggravating fits of narcissism that tend to plague these attempts. "Who cares I'm not a moralist / I'm just a lady with some time", she declares in the very first track, and somehow I doubt we'll ever get a line like that from the likes of either Adele or Joanna Newsom.
But the main point of attraction, and probably the one and only that managed to so quickly endear her to the fanbase, is her voice and manner — alternating between the serious schoolteacher tone to a strangely fascinating pop vibrato à la Roy Orbison, not necessarily limited to the poppier, rhythmic tunes like ʽThe Waitingʼ and ʽFreeʼ. In a world that has probably seen and heard it all, it's not a totally unique voice, but an interesting one: thick, rich on low overtones, although it seems as if she is intentionally trying to sing much lower than her natural range (like a soprano reaching for contralto) — but it feels okay, symbolic of the idea of life dragging you down, if you know what I mean. That said, I totally disagree with the frequently expressed opinion about sadness being the overwhelming emotion on these songs: on the contrary, Half Way Home feels like a pretty happy album, except that happiness is something that the heroine is looking for and striving to achieve, rather than an accomplished state.
The only proverbially «sad» song on the album is its only epic-length track, ʽLonely Universeʼ, which drags on for seven minutes and does indeed deal with loss and separation — no wonder it is also the weakest track on the entire album, a slow, lethargic waltz where you are supposed to empathize with a chorus that goes "goodbye, sweet Mother Earth, without you now I'm a lonely universe". It is not melodically stronger or weaker than anything else on here — it's just that its bleakness sounds contrived and generic next to the far more mixed feelings on the other tracks, and also that no Angel Olsen song deserves to be seven minutes long. Give me something short and poppy like ʽFreeʼ instead — it might be a 100% Buddy Holly / Roy Orbison / Pete Townshend rip-off, but with Olsen's voice behind it, the vibe gets a new reading that combines tenderness with depth and maturity, or something like that.
And basically, that's it. If you want to wax philosophical on the inner strength and magic of the album, go read the Pitchfork review about how the main theme of this album is "a thoughtful, never morbid belief in the finality of death" and how its greatest asset is "its openness to what could be, to potential" (funny, I always thought that the greatest song about "openness to what could be" was McCartney's ʽWhy Don't We Do It In The Road?ʼ). I can only sum up by saying that I enjoyed listening to this stuff — that, upon my third listen, I remained un-irritated by most of it, and that, in itself, is already a big plus, though hardly worth a well-deserved thumbs up: passable lyrics and a special vocal timbre are not enough, after all, to cover for a total lack of original songwriting or interesting musical arrangements. But sufficiently decent, I guess, for the oh-so-vague standards of 2012.