On Big Time, Angel Olsen Bares Her Solemn Country Heart
The singer's highly anticipated follow-up to All Mirrors delivers devastating, urgent triumphs of self-acceptanceMusic Reviews Angel Olsen
Angel Olsen’s songwriting, the foundations of which she cemented way back in 2012 on Half Way Home, is talismanic; she dares her kinfolk, those of us who are still figuring themselves out, to chase after what she’s chasing: a finish line answering to the overwhelming scores our bodies have long kept. She builds narratives out of the cycles in her life, namely the interpersonal relationships she has tumbled into and out of, and she speaks loudest of her treasures and slips when they have become too heavy to bear.
On her masterpiece, 2019’s All Mirrors, Olsen wrote from a place where her wants and needs played second fiddle to those of the characters around her. The record was pragmatic and prosaic; an unromantic look at the loneliness of living singularly; ridiculously melancholic, lyrically unfettered and instrumentally grand. “[All Mirrors] was so fucking emotional and hard for me to make,” Olsen told Apple Music in 2019. “It was so directly about things in my life. And then I had to share them with new people. I needed to do something and trust it, even if I was on an island.” If All Mirrors was Olsen taking a deep breath in, then Big Time is her long, metered exhale.
I’m often forgetful of how operatic and theatrical Olsen’s voice is, given how she cut her teeth on punk and noise over a decade ago, and how her recent projects have often centered the tender enormity of their arrangements, rather than the bravado of her vocals. The rock ‘n’ roll soul that defined 2016’s MY WOMAN put muscle into her lonesome, dive-bar balladry; 2014’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness gave definition to Olsen’s dark, ingenious intensity.
But on Big Time, the grand, burgeoning, symphonic gestures of Olsen’s last three studio LPs are gone, substituted with Phases-era, minimalistic, pedal steel-tinged sobcore and dreamy twang. It’s a one-woman show, a prize fight where the challenger no-showed. Big Time isn’t a bummer opera; it’s a last-call, honky-tonk bar encore—and it rules. On opener “All The Good Times,” Olsen surrenders the album’s thesis, declaring that she’s done making excuses for everyone else. “I can’t say that I’m sorry when I don’t feel so wrong anymore,” she sings. The horn arrangements here are subtle, and Drew Erickson’s organ trembles slightly beneath Olsen’s vocals. It’s an announcement, a warning, that this is a new era of her songwriting.
In promotional spots for Big Time, Olsen has claimed the album is both “not a country record” and “not NOT a country record.” Regardless, it sounds Western, akin to the romanticization of cowpokes kissing each other sweetly while roaming endless deserts with nothing but an unreachable horizon before them—which is, maybe, the sound that has always lived beneath the soaring breadth of her previous compositions. Parts of Big Time come across like skeletal remains of All Mirrors, but they never feel like demos or unrealized works. “Ghost On,” specifically, is one of those tendrils, as the song meditates on healing and growth in a failing relationship. “And I don’t know if you can love someone stronger than what suits you,” Olsen sings in an early spotlight, before Jake Blanton’s sitar paces beautifully towards the finish.
Of course, there are moments where Olsen vividly channels Tammy Wynette’s swagger (“All The Good Times” and the title track), but Big Time doesn’t exist in a vacuum of influences. Country music notoriously reboots itself over and over; you either make it well or you just make it. For Olsen, it’s the former, and, on older songs like “California” (from Phases) and “Some Things Cosmic” (from the Strange Cacti EP), she hinted at her bucolic grandeur. She’s been edging in this direction for a decade, with a voice that’s timeless and achingly beautiful. Big Time is just as faithful to the genre it taps into as it is unequivocally a permutation of Olsen’s own trademark sound. “Dream Thing” is a gentle, drum- and piano-centric rapture about running into an ex-lover where Olsen lets her voice coil so elegantly. Closing track “Chasing the Sun” is a tear-jerking triumph, with a sharp, sublime story about being so happily tethered to someone that losing sight of everyone (and everything) else is a welcomed Eden (“I can’t seem to get anything done / With someone like you around”).
On songs like “Through The Fires” and “This Is How It Works,” she unlocks self-actualizing, not self-deprecating, acts of vulnerability. There are parts of Big Time where Olsen’s delivery is more like a lonesome, center-stage monologue than just one piece in a full-band sound. But “This Is How It Works” finds her harmonizing with Spencer Cullum’s pedal steel and lamenting the chronic unhappiness of unhealthy attachment (“I’m so tired of saying I’m tired”); “Through The Fires” is a redemption story in which Olsen sings readily about making the sacrifice to let go of the pain preventing her from being her healthiest self (“Then I moved in to the feeling I found / And the feeling I found / Showed me how I could lose / To love without boundary”).
The most powerful moment on the record, “All The Flowers,” is arguably Olsen’s emotional apex. With a family of violins, a viola, a cello and a harpsichord surrounding her, Olsen sings, her voice gentle and fluttering, of retrospect, and her endless reckoning with the act of living. “I’ve been spending too much time / Searching in vain to find / The only reason / The only reason / To be alive to try / To be somebody / To be someday / To be alive / And with another,” she rings out, an upheaval that tugs at your heart. “Go Home” is an outlier, sounding more like something from All Mirrors, but its dense lyrics hold just as much compositional magnitude as the stripped-down tracks that surround it.
Big Time is like Olsen took Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” and translated it into an album. The record presents a similar visceral worry: that no longer being vulnerable means no longer feeling things as profoundly. There is a certain beauty to the ways in which our hearts can carry so, so much; a misunderstood terror in being happy and unable to remember the hurt. Big Time is emotionally devastating, but never toes a line of melodrama. When Olsen confronts certain traumas, and the optimism spurred in her after a period of loss pokes through, it stands alongside the joy she feels in her own personhood and the love she holds for others. After five records, Angel Olsen arrives here emotionally lighter and singing through grief, rather than against it. There’s devastation afoot, but not without gestures of romantic and personal euphoria. She’s documenting how joyful it is to feel alive and have it make sense, and on Big Time, no grandiose, orchestral gravitas is needed to justify why.
Matt Mitchell is a writer living in Columbus, Ohio. His writing can be found now, or soon, in Pitchfork, Bandcamp, Paste, LitHub and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @matt_mitchell48.