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Angel Olsen Finds a New Gear in a Vintage Genre: Country

Angel Olsen Finds a New Gear in a Vintage Genre: Country

Angel Olsen does not care for empty pleasantries, in conversation or her music. “I don’t like small talk,” the 35-year-old St. Louis-born singer and songwriter said in a recent New Yorker profile, while driving around Asheville, N.C., the town she has called home for nearly a decade. Similarly, the songs on her superb sixth album, “Big Time,” prefer plunging right into the depths.

“I had a dream last night/We were having a fight/It lasted 25 years,” begins the unfussily titled “Dream Thing,” an atmospheric ballad that imagines an encounter with an ex and feels like an unmediated transmission from the subconscious. Later, on the plaintive, acoustic-guitar-driven “This Is How It Works,” she cuts even more directly to the chase: “I know you can’t talk long, but I’m barely hanging on.”

“Big Time” was recorded last year, at the end of a particularly tumultuous time in Olsen’s life: Shortly after she came out to her parents — she had her first romantic relationship and subsequent breakup with a woman during the pandemic — her father, then her mother both died of separate illnesses within two months of each other. Though these life-scrambling events are not explicitly referenced on the album, “Big Time” (which she recorded in Topanga, Calif., with the producer Jonathan Wilson) is charged with a continuous current of weighty, transformative and bracingly cleareyed emotion.

Olsen’s voice has always been a strangely stirring instrument, like an imaginary folk trio of Roy Orbison, Karen Dalton and Lucinda Williams singing in tight harmony. On her electrifying but rough-edged 2012 debut album, “Half Way Home,” Olsen leaned defiantly into her vocal idiosyncrasies, imbuing almost every note with an intense warble. In the decade since, across a series of increasingly confident and ambitious records, she has learned how to modulate those eccentricities, making them hit with an ever blunter force. Her previous album, “All Mirrors” from 2019, featured dark, almost gothic synth-rock and affecting forays into orchestral pop. On “Big Time” — the first album on which Olsen is singing consciously about queer desire — she turns to a notably tradition-bound genre: country.

In a way, it makes sense. Long before the eminently viral “sad girl” aesthetic (a somewhat reductive description that has stuck to the women of millennial indie-rock like Olsen, Mitski and Phoebe Bridgers), female country stars like Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette found the genre a welcome place to luxuriate in bottomless melancholy. Both of those artists feel like touchstones on “Big Time” (“I’ve never been too sad,” Olsen sings at one point, “Too sad that I couldn’t share”). But on torch songs like the stark “Ghost On” and the stunning “Right Now,” Olsen finds a perfect balance between honoring the sounds of country’s past and updating them in her own image. “Why’d you have to go and make it weird?” she belts on one of the most sonically grandiose moments of the record — the swooping chorus of “Right Now” — a perfect bit of colloquial lyricism that makes this timeless-seeming song singularly hers.

The opener and first single, “All the Good Times,” is a laid-back breakup song that Olsen wrote a few years before the album was recorded; she has said she initially intended to offer it to the country star Sturgill Simpson, but it’s difficult to imagine it in anyone else’s hands, with its weary benevolence and patiently paced but still explosive emotional climax. “I can’t say that I’m sorry when I don’t feel so wrong anymore,” Olsen sings atop light, clopping percussion and a lap steel that winks like it’s in a Steve Miller song.

While the first half of the record doesn’t scrimp on heartbreaking moments (“All the Flowers” is a highlight, showcasing Olsen’s intuitive crooner’s phrasing and gift for melody), “Big Time” crescendos in its second half, across a stretch of tracks that contains two of the most devastating songs she has ever composed. The first is “Right Now,” a country lament that, in its final minute, transforms into a dissonant, flinty-eyed confrontation à la Fleetwood Mac’s “Silver Spring”: “I need you to look at me and listen,” Olsen intones, “I am the past coming back to haunt you.”

Then there’s “Go Home,” an ornate conflagration of a song that sounds like an antiquated theater burning down in slow motion. “I wanna go home,” Olsen wails like someone who knows it’s too late to “Go back to small things.” Her vocal performance is wrenching, but by the song’s end she has arrived at a kind of peace: “Forget the old dream,” she sings, “I got a new thing.”

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Olsen’s music resists easy sentiment, and “Big Time” ends on an appropriately ambiguous note. If she wanted an uncomplicated happy ending, she might have concluded with the breezy, love-struck title track, which Olsen wrote with her current partner, Beau Thibodeaux. (Its chorus revolves around one of the intimate catchphrases of their relationship: “I love you big time.”)

The record instead fades out with “Chasing the Sun,” a song that also depicts a budding new love and contains some of Olsen’s most playful lyrics — “write a postcard to you when you’re in the other room” — but its plangent arrangement of piano and strings make it sound like an elegy. Olsen seems once again to be ruminating on the transformative nature of grief: It may never vanish completely, but in time perhaps it can imbue the hard-won good times with an extra shine.

Angel Olsen
“Big Time”

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