The Real Angel Olsen Has Arrived

As someone who does the whole “having critical opinions about music” thing, I often find myself forming backseat ideas of where artists I feel have potential should go with their work. I’m sure all fans do this on some level, where they form expectations for upcoming releases and hope it lives up to them. But I don’t know if people who aren’t deep into this music criticism hole can fully appreciate how satisfying it is when an artist does exactly what you hoped they would.

Angel Olsen has done that on her new single, “All Mirrors,” which is my favorite song of the year by some margin, to the point that I’m listening to it almost non-stop, and when I’m doing anything else I’m thinking “I wish I was listening to ‘All Mirrors’ right now.” This is one of those perfect songs where the artist finally figures out who she is (or at least who I want her to be, which works all the same in my book).

I’m not a big fan of folk/alt country music, so I wasn’t too interested in Olsen’s acclaimed early albums. It wasn’t until her last album, My Woman, that I thought she showed how much talent and charisma she has, particularly on songs like “Shut Up Kiss Me” and its psychedelic centerpiece, “Sister.” On her new single, she’s ditched the guitars entirely and gone full-blown dramatic synth goth. It’s a breathtaking song and video that warrants comparisons to the heavy-hitters of this style of large-scale pop: Kate Bush and Björk (especially the Homogenic and Vulnicura eras). But Olsen’s voice is distinctive enough that it doesn’t feel like she’s copying anyone — this sound is hers more than any of her previous material.

It’s funny that this comes on the heels of that Sleater-Kinney song, where the band went synth and it didn’t fit any of them and made no sense. Whereas on this song, Olsen is exactly where she should be. Her voice sounds better than it ever has in this setting and her lyrics are actually more impactful when surrounded by the cinematic synths, beats, and strings. I’m not one to comment on artists’ appearances much, but I also feel a certain journalistic responsibility to point out that she looks like a god in this video, which has kind of a Sunset Boulevard vibe when combined with the lyrics about “losing beauty.” Every element of this just fits and if this represents the direction of her next album, I am very excited.

Something that has always bothered me about the discourse surrounding folk music is this assumption that artists who only play a guitar and whisper in their songs convey more authenticity and emotion than artists who go for bigger, more dramatic sounds. There are already plenty of counterpoints to that, but this song proves that Olsen’s music is more powerful and real than ever, even as she leaves that style in the dust.

#5: Angel Olsen – “My Woman”

Prior to 2016, I had written off Angel Olsen as one of those no-fun Americana/folk artists that is clearly talented but doesn’t quite grab me with her music. That said, I’m a very generous, fair person, so I gave My Woman a shot to see if Olsen could win me over.

Well, she did, and My Woman might be the album that surprised me the most this year. I did not expect Olsen to bust out this garage-rocky, psychedelic sound, to have this kind of charisma as a performer, or to have songs that have such legitimate pop hooks. On “Shut Up Kiss Me” she channels Gwen Stefani (but like, in a good way) and pretty much sounds like a rock star, while “Intern” shows her pure ability as a singer and lyricist who can still sell the hell out a ballad. It all builds up to “Sister,” a nearly eight minute jam that seamlessly melds indie rock, traditional singer-songwriter, and the folk/lo-fi style she was initially known for.

Olsen expands her sound and style on My Woman, but does it in a way that is very true to herself and retains what made people like her in the first place — it’s a big album, but it often feels very small. It pulls off a delicate trick, which is satisfying her existing fans while also pushing herself artistically and winning over new ones like me.