Angel Olsen Great Expectations
Published Aug 30, 2016Less than a minute into her self-directed video for "Intern," singer-songwriter Angel Olsen turns away from the recorder an interviewer is holding to fix her gaze firmly on the viewer. The shimmering, synth-driven song is the first taste of Olsen's forthcoming fourth album, My Woman, and she's already firmly commanding our attention as she sings, "Everyone I know has got their own ideal / I just wanna be alive, make something real."
It's the first indication that Olsen wants to confront and subvert the expectations that media and fans have of her in the wake of her breakout 2014 album, Burn Your Fire For No Witness. While listeners connected in droves to singles like the caustic, countrified "Hi-Five" and melancholic album tracks like "White Fire" and "Lights Out," the album's world-weary sound and acerbic lyrics eventually eclipsed the other aspects of her music and persona. Suddenly, Olsen found herself being portrayed as a one-dimensional sad-sack folkie.
"I think, in some way, releasing 'Intern' was a way for me to be like, 'I'm going to fuck with your perception of what you think this is supposed to be,'" she offers. "I got some response that's like, 'Wait, are you coming out with a synth record? I'm not sure how I feel about that, because I'm used to your folk stuff. I just want you to go back into the box and be the little folk girl with the guitar and sing sad Leonard Cohen songs, and we can just keep you there and it'll always be special.'"
"Intern," the most synth-centric of Olsen's new songs, was something of a red herring as an introduction to her new album. My Woman is less a sonic reinvention than a declaration that Olsen isn't interested in meeting anyone halfway. She doesn't quite "fuck with" listener perception and expectation here, to borrow her phrasing; if anything, as with that poor sap in the "Intern" video, Olsen simply turns her back on them.
"The last thing I wanted to do," she says, "was to force an album or use the same exact formula because the last one was successful."
So she didn't. Rather than building in a linear way from Burn Your Fire, My Woman branches off in several fascinating directions. This isn't Olsen's "synth record," it's not uniformly more accessible than her last, nor is there a central theme, sound or concept. "Intern" might burble with electronics, but "Not Gonna Kill You" is an impassioned, ramshackle acoustic guitar-driven song about an adaptive, evolving love; "Sister" is a nearly eight-minute epic that ends with an wailing guitar solo; and raw closer "Pops" is a sparsely arranged piano-and-voice ballad.
It's an album rife with dichotomies. As is her wont, songs like "Shut Up Kiss Me" weave humour and pathos — "There's a little bit of comedy and a little bit of drama," she says — but there are contrasts so strong here that she eventually decided to split My Woman right in half.
"For it to sound accessible on one side and free on the other was intentional on my part," she asserts. "In making the sequencing on the record, it's really hard to just throw 'Sister' at number two or three, you know? Or to have 'Shut Up Kiss Me' be an ending track. Then it all kind of fell into place and I was like, 'You know what? This is what people want to hear, that's fine, there it is.' But if they feel like turning it over — because in my head, they're buying a record — it's going to be something else, a totally different thing."
A month away from the record's release, Olsen is currently "obsessing with side B," where songs like "Sister" and "Woman" surpass the seven-minute mark and "Those Were the Days" revels in its minute-long instrumental interlude. These longer, more languid compositions find Olsen breaking with the dense, tortuous lyricism of her past work and embracing a more laidback approach.
"Sometimes it's better not to overthink it and try to psychoanalyse every single lyric and have it be all lyric-based," she explains. "Sometimes it's nice to just sing, or just play something. There's a balance happening on the last record, but looking back it's also just like, 'I'm exhausted.' I want there to be more of a break where I can just hear music for a minute, you know? So to me, that's the idea of this current record — it's less digestible or accessible to an audience that would prefer a song like 'Shut Up Kiss Me' or 'Forgiven/Forgotten.'"
That self-assuredness, found all over My Woman, was hard-won, forged in the flames of Burn Your Fire's success and the alienating, at times creatively stifling fame it brought her.
"I just had no idea what was coming at me. I basically accidentally opened a business, and there were other elements that had nothing to do with the record that, because of its success, put pressure on me to think about the popularity of my thoughts in song, and make that a livelihood. To me, that's kind of a backwards way of thinking about making something for the public, and making something that you're proud of."
Olsen credits both the advice of peers and taking some much needed time off from touring for helping give her perspective.
"Yes, [Burn Your Fire] was a successful thing that happened, it was a turning point in my career in some way," she says, "but I can let go of that now, and I can move forward. I took enough time away from thinking about my work that I could allow My Woman to be what it is."
Olsen's new record defies easy categorization and explanation, and she's happy with that.
"How do you explain to someone that 'Yes, I am in this work, but there's more there, and sorry to disappoint you but I'm actually doing really well and I'm very happy'? I'm good at sadness, but I'm allowed to be happy. I'm allowed to have fun — and I'm going to."