Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
Angel Olsen is at her most powerful when her songs are at their starkest. The best song on her 2014 album Burn Your Fire For No Witness was the six-minute, Leonard Cohen-like “White Fire,” a slow-burning and utterly chilling dirge that gained its intensity from how intimate it felt. It escalates in tension but never in volume, Olsen’s tone gentle and her expression subtle while her ever slightly heavier strumming seemingly turns a lament into a furious tempest of a song, all with very gradual, careful moves. I’ve personally seen her get a noisy room to go silent with this song—twice.
A slow-burner like “White Fire” wouldn’t be quite so powerful without a companion rock song like “Hi-Five” or “Forgiven/Forgotten” to lead up to it, and that juxtaposition is central to her new album, My Woman. Crafted with the double-sided nature of vinyl in mind, My Woman comprises two complementary halves: one a fuzzy rock side, the other composed of slower and more dramatic ballads. Individually, all of the songs are strong, self-contained bits of cleverly written and emotionally gripping indie rock. Yet in setting her most urgent and distorted tracks against those that require the most patience or attention makes each stronger. Olsen has always been a compelling songwriter, but more than ever she showcases a range evident in just how versatile that songwriting is.
That My Woman can be separated into a faster side and a slower side is, while accurate, oversimplifying the matter just a bit. In fact, leadoff track “Intern” doesn’t really fit into any convenient category here; it’s an atmospheric electronic track that serves as a contradictorily melancholy and brightly shimmering introduction, her repeated lines of “Falling in love and I swear it’s the last time” a set of famous last words that set up another brilliantly turbulent set of performances. From there it’s all dirty guitar jangle and big emotional statements, her reading of the title of the hard-rocking “Shut Up Kiss Me” almost hostile in its hurried cadence. “Give It Up” is one Black Francis yelp away from being a (very good) Pixies song, while the psychedelic swirl of “Not Gonna Kill You” harbors the most unlikely ray of hope, Olsen singing “I’ll let the light shine in” amid some of the most fiery moments on record.
The second, slower side is the less immediate of the two, but the one that features its most jaw-dropping moments, namely twin seven-minute monoliths “Sister” and “Woman.” They’re almost companion tracks, the former a Fleetwood Mac-style dirge to an unnamed and ambiguous person, perhaps a sister she never had (“I want to know you…I want to be there”), while the latter layers Crazy Horse’s ragged glory against a simultaneously defiant and alluring refrain: “I dare you to understand what makes me a woman.” It’s an arresting moment, certainly one of the most chill-inducing moments of the album’s 47 minutes. Upon hearing it, it’s all too easy to imagine a venue going silent in awe.