ANGEL OLSEN: MY WOMAN (2016)
1) Intern; 2) Never Be Mine; 3) Shut Up Kiss Me; 4) Give It Up; 5) Not Gonna Kill You; 6) Heart Shaped Face; 7) Sister; 8) Those Were The Days; 9) Woman; 10) Pops.
Third time's the charm, I guess... but then, Olsen did try to pull all the stops in order to attract attention this time around — on My Woman (and no, she's not a lesbian, the title is supposed to read like «the woman in me» or something like that), she dumps the log cabin for an abandoned palace, expanding in style, ambition, and production values as if there was a Phil Spector behind her back. Actually, not just Phil Spector: My Woman has a real hodge-podge of influences, ranging from synth-pop to Sixties' girl groups to Stevie Nicks to Neil Young, yet all the songs are still tied together conceptually with Olsen's lyrics and vocal delivery that logically continue and develop what she'd begun on the first two records. Now if only we could find the right words to define and describe what she'd begun on the first two records...
I suppose it's really all about confusion, in the end. Once again, some people will speak about the loneliness and depression of the record, but I do believe it is mostly about finding the real me — the very first song goes "doesn't matter who you are or what you've done / still got to wake up and be someone" — and the stylistic mix agrees with that, as Olsen jumps from one musical paradigm into another as if she were trying out an endless wardrobe, lost in the dazzling array of fashions, sizes, and colors. For her, this is way better (and probably more honest) than assuming one particular image, glossing it up and sticking to it — this is why, even if ʽInternʼ sounds a lot like Lana Del Rey, it is much better than any Lana Del Rey song because it still feels more natural, humble, and earthy than Lana's manipulative-theatrical cheapness.
The specific thematic particularities of these songs — does she get her man? is she losing her man? is she mistreating her man? is she being mistreated by her man? is she in favor or against free love? is she gay? etc. etc. — do not fascinate me any more than did the themes of her Cohen / Mitchell phase; honestly, you do not need Angel Olsen as your spiritual guru through the world of personal relations. I simply prefer to interpret My Woman as a record that poses more questions than it gives answers ("I dare you to understand what makes me a woman", she belts out on the title track, but it is never clear that she herself understands that), a brooding stream of consciousness that sometimes clothes itself in pop hooks and sometimes just in sonic atmosphere, but at least does so with a sufficient degree of energy, diversity, and good taste to keep me involved: something that was barely possible on the previous two albums.
According to Olsen herself, the album was structured as a two-part LP: shorter, tighter, hookier pop songs on the first side and longer, looser, more atmospheric rants and broodings on the second one. Most likely, this was a move calculated to attract more listeners (no wonder she did not choose to reverse the order — had ʽSisterʼ and ʽWomanʼ been the first tracks, many would probably not have the stimulus to keep on listening), but since this is a personality-driven record, the difference between the two batches is not really that crucial. For instance, the cool thing about ʽShut Up Kiss Meʼ is not that its melody echoes themes of the Ronettes and the Shirelles — it is that these themes are given a solid reworking, as Olsen forces her love on the other guy rather than pleads for it: the "shut up, kiss me, hold me tight!" hook is delivered in such a nervously sped up manner as could never have been considered proper for any of the classic girl groups. I am still unsure of how sincere this stuff is, or if Angel herself understands properly what it is she is trying to communicate, but it is a brave attempt at taking a good old sound and adapting it for the purposes of the 21st century woman, regardless of whether it succeeds or not.
The best song on the first half, as far as I'm concerned, is ʽNot Gonna Kill Youʼ, which survives as an emotional crescendo — melodically, it seems to borrow inspiration from The Who, with lots of choppy chords and a nearly-mad percussion track, but vocally, it features a gradual transformation of the singer into a disembodied ghost: the line "'til I'm nothing else but the feeling" is followed by a realisation of that promise, and it's cool — she soars, she echoes, she howls, she goes from bright to dark, it's a pretty darn awesome performance, even a little scary, although she does try to reassure us that "it's not gonna kill you, it's not gonna break you, it's just gonna shake you", as if coaxing us into taking a roller coaster ride. Does she sound possessed or what? Well, at this level she probably still wouldn't be able to stand up to the levels of Janis or Patti Smith, but she still passes the screamer test with flying colors.
Whether or not you will be ready to accept the longer tracks is another matter. ʽSisterʼ clearly channels the spirit of Tusk-era Stevie Nicks — she even seems to sing with the same nasal rasp that Stevie had at the time, even though, being cocaine-free, Angel probably has more of an actual nose — but her guitar player ain't no Lindsey Buckingham, and the messy guitar jam at the end of the song just adds confusion, rather than emotional uplift. ʽWomanʼ is better, if you get through the first few minutes — eventually, the vocals become anthemic and banshee-like, and the lead guitar begins playing a grim, jagged, psycho-bluesy pattern that's somewhere in between Neil Young and Bardo Pond, though, again, neither reaching the ecstatic heights of the former nor plunging to the grimy, trance-inducing depths of the latter. All in all, I'd say she tries to bite off far more than she can chew on these «epics» — but at least she doesn't exactly fall flat on her face, which is already a big plus.
Towards the end, she returns once more to her beloved minimalism: ʽPopsʼ bobs up and down on two heavily sustained piano chords and seems to tell us that it didn't work out after all — no wonder, because if the real life Angel Olsen is at least half of her lyrical heroine, dating her would probably be a nightmare even for Socrates — but then again, we're never ever even sure of what exactly it was that did not work out. "I'll be the thing that lives in the dream when it's gone", she concludes, which is probably exactly the way I'm going to remember her once this review is over: clearly, there was something here, but it's almost impossible to put your finger on it, or even to tell if you felt sympathetic towards the artist or not.
I feel reasonably secure about giving the record a thumbs up, because here is a serious musical effort from an artist who has mastered the art of making her personality override that of her many influences — something that was still far from clear on the previous two records. Unfortunately, I am still under the impression that this personality is overblown way out of proportion: too many of her ideas on the musical/lyrical disclosure of «Love as Transcendental Power Equally Capable of Creation and Destruction» seem to be realized in a theatrical and exaggerated manner. Or, roughly speaking, if this is art rock, then the compositional and musical side of it leaves a lot to be desired — but if this is pop, it takes itself much too seriously. Still, there's no denying that a bigger and brasher sound, as well as stylistic diversity, helped her make the whole thing far more listenable, and it doesn't hurt, either, that in her role of the Ice Queen she at least treated us to some impressive blizzards here, rather than just sit and sulk motionless on her ice throne. Now, do you think it would be too much to ask her for a creative reinterpretation of the Ramones' ʽI Wanna Be Your Boyfriendʼ for her next project?..