When Angel Olsen released “Intern” as the first track off her new album, My Woman, and labeled it a “trailer,” the song seemed a declarative announcement of something entirely new from the musician, who’d spoken consistently of annoyance at being pigeonholed as a brooding singer songwriter with a distinctive warble. When fans heard the song, some (including me) wondered if she was about to release an album of Badalamenti-influenced, moody electro-pop — and hey, that would’ve been pretty cool. “Intern” was so breathy and sedate that it even, per Olsen herself, elicited rather superficial comparisons to Lana Del Rey. (She did not like this.)
But then she released the album’s second single, “Shut Up Kiss Me.” This new song was not another mellotron cloud, but rather a clamorous, rush-inducing amalgam of the best aspects of Burn Your Fire for No Witness’ “Hi-Five” and “Forgiven/Forgotten”; it sarcastically employed a vintage rock sensibility, and coated her penchant for second degree ’50s pop in grunge immediacy. It also took a partially jocular approach to miscommunication, as Olsen previously did with loneliness on “Hi-Five.” When she released “Shut Up Kiss Me,” it became apparent that “Intern” had been only the beginning of what Olsen was displaying across this album: the beauties and frustrations of the unshakeable consistency of selfhood — some immoveable foundation over which variable forms of expression — for her, sonic — can shift.
Yet it was actually the third release, and the last of the singles, that spoke most to the interplay of the varied sounds on the album with what’s unchanging about Olsen’s work. “Sister,” the track that falls right at the center of the album, and splits its parts in its arrestingly steady, assured eight minutes, ends with the line “All my life I thought I’d change,” repeated until it’s oxymoronically both transformative and repetitive. After the first two oppositional singles, here Olsen creates a country-steeped lullaby à la Lucinda Williams that slowly rises to a Springsteen climax, with that last statement set beneath a half-ironic, half-loving-it dad-rock guitar riff.
My Woman is a logical continuation and deepening of the music Olsen makes, rather than the total upheaval that “Intern” — and its accompanying video, in which Olsen dressed as an electrified pop star in a silver wig — pretended to tease. That “Intern” video and song almost now seem to spoof the ways musicians are encouraged to be chameleonic in order to keep the press interested, and how the press’ favorite thing is to have a new, definitive label for each work.
If people predicted that collaborative production credits from Justin Raisen — who’s worked with Charli XCX and Sky Ferrera — meant a transition to electro-pop or a transition to anything so particular at all, that was pretty inevitably always going to be false. Olsen offers no such easy think-pieceable material. While the album might be a further step away from folk into mostly ’60s and ’70s rock/pop influences, those only work so well because of the ways they allow Olsen to further exercise the might of her voice.
As she did on Burn Your Fire, she approaches everything from the insufficiencies of life experience (“Intern”) to family/selfhood (“Sister”), and most commonly, love and relationships from a vague, distanced and elliptical perspective (“Love of the chase/Love of love/What is it my heart’s made of?” she sings on album closer, “Pops”), imbuing her lyrical generality with her crazy knowledge of the power of her own voice to fill in the missing specifics.
In instrumental moments, she uses the absence of that voice as an anticipation-builder. Her voice is so expressive and dextrous that withholding it is also a powerful choice, as on much of the album’s other 7+ minute track, “Woman,” where her vocals instill tension and even menace in the airy psych rock. Many have already noted her astonishing delivery of the line, “I dare you to understand what makes me a woman,” and its worth noting once again. Olsen often elevates the nasality of her voice on the record as a contrast mechanism to her guttural, assertive yells and the mellifluous softness of her falsetto. In this moment, Olsen’s at peak nasality in the first parts of the statement, but then she opens her voice to cavernous depths in a low wail on the final word — as though understanding such a thing as “what makes [her] a woman” is at once both as simple as the written statement and as vast and multiform as gender itself.
In another way of eluding reductive genre identifiers, Olsen manages to be reflective about the past without being annoyingly nostalgic. Even the album’s break into a vinyl-formatted A and B side is done subtly — with a brief mention across press releases, but mostly just audible in the way its structured. It sets up an army of roughed-up vintage pop songs up front and, in back, once you’ve gotten past those, opens onto slow, sprawling expanses, in a way that makes you wish a day could be as short as this album so you could use it to cycle through all of it: those exhilarating opening pop songs could propel you through the morning, the long, ponderous middle tracks easing you into the evening before the at-once comforting piano and discomforting vocal modification of closer “Pops” alienates you into a lovely, sad sleep. Thus, this splitting of the album is there as an emotional gesture, not as an empty reminiscence on the good old days of vinyl.
Retrospectively, “Intern” seems placed at the beginning of the album — which switches gears immediately after — as a suggestion of a distaste for showy transformations. Rather than monolithically embracing one genre to prove some kind of prowess as a shape-shifter, Olsen plays around with a collage of familiar influences to expand on what she’s already done as a musician — which is to make powerful music that’s hard to pinpoint as biographical, temporal, geographical, or even all that genre-specific. The album closes with the line, “I’ll be the thing that lives in a dream when it’s gone.” After an exquisite album that combines psych rock, country, rockabilly, 80s synth pop, and even doo-wop, she strips it down to just her voice and piano on “Pops,” and what we’re left with is a haunting voice that lives on after the album finishes. If the aforementioned “Sister” lyrics “All my life I thought I’d change” sound at first frustrated in their revelation of consistency, perhaps there’s a comfort in the notion that some ineffable qualities of a person and their artistry — despite whatever genre-crafted bridges they decide to cross — will not change.