Album review: Angel Olson – Big Time
Matt James Titcombe reviews Angel Olson’s latest indie-folk album, Big Time.
Angel Olsen proved herself to be one of the finest singer-songwriters of the 2010s across four albums, each of which felt like a development from the ones that came before. 2019’s All Mirrors is a clear deviation from the indie-folk rock styles and band arrangements of her previous releases; it was lush, full, heavily orchestrated and had a real grandness to it.
Olsen makes a conscious decision on the new album Big Time to “put the voice to the front and have the words be heard and embraced”, adopting a more simplistic approach to songwriting and arrangements. Olsen identified an openness to the structures and sensibilities of country music that suited her, and the result is an album which, as the promo jokingly says: “It’s Not Country… But It’s Not Not Country!”
Biographically, the last two years have been deeply turbulent for Olsen – shortly after coming out as queer, she suffered the loss of her both her parents in quick succession. This sense of grief, love, and general exhaustion about events exacerbated by a pandemic context seem to have informed Olsen’s clarity about her work this time, only able to focus on singing, and feeling “in the songs in a different way”. Ultimately, she pulls this style off really well, on Big Time — the twangs, the lap steel, and the organ chords all form a lovely Americana backdrop for Olsen’s voice, which is the main attraction for most of Big Time’s 47-minute runtime.
[A] sense of grief, love, and general exhaustion about events exacerbated by a pandemic context seem to have informed Olsen’s clarity about her work
The opener and first single ‘All The Good Times’ is wonderful, showcasing Olsen’s familiar aching and swooping vocal style perfectly. The instrumental is mostly minimal, a warm bed of organs and weepy lap steels, but you are really waiting for a chorus to kick in. When it does, it is glorious, producing a deeply felt sense of pained reflection. Thematically, we start with a goodbye, but a defiant, determined closing of the book, a call that “If there’s something you’re missing then go right ahead / I’ll be long gone, thanks for the songs”.
The title track Big Time sounds like a slow country dance, the softly swaying 3/4 rhythm perfectly mirroring the days of “laying in the tall grass / talking with your eyes” that her lyric depicts. This serves as one of the most complete fulfilments of the album’s sonic mission, even incorporating some honky-tonk style keys. Its lovely chorus feels vintage; its sound is paired with the queer dancehall aesthetic seen in the music video.
The 1-2 sequence of ‘Dream Thing’ and ‘Ghost On’ runs the risk of a meandering feeling in the album. Both tracks are nice in isolation, but by the time of ‘Ghost On’s watery guitars, organ chords, and lilting instrumental outro, the territory starts to feel predictable. ‘All The Flowers’ lures you back in, a wispy, captivating beauty with Olsen’s fractured, near-breaking voice at its most breathy. The shimmering orchestral outro is reminiscent of Julia Holter’s Aviary and is one of the record’s most beautiful moments.
‘Right Now’ follows this tone, with its climax easily posing as one of the album’s heaviest moments. Olsen’s voice sounds particularly clear in the chorus and you can tell that beneath its pain is a latent intensity ready to burst into catharsis. The build-up is perfect, with its release of distorted guitars and insistent drums standing out on an album in which they are almost entirely absent. The heavy chromatic riffs are ominous and brilliantly lethargic – greedily making you wish for more moments like this. A sense of lethargy is carried over into the much more plaintive ‘This Is How It Works’, where Olsen most directly deals with her mother. Perfectly conveying weariness in her delivery of its hook, “it’s a hard time again”, we find Olsen struggling to break the weight of grief, tired of being tired itself.
The other stand out in the second half, ‘Go Home’, is another track which uses dynamics perfectly. The instrumental slowly gathers in intensity and Olsen wailing “I’m dancing / I feel like dying”. On top of a swirling vortex of strings, this already feels like a classic moment in her discography. The best lyrical moment comes in ‘Through The Fires’, which feels like a mini manifesto for healing — “To love without boundary and put it to use / to remember the ghost who exists in the past / but be freed from the longing for one moment to last…”.
Ultimately, Big Time proves another unsurprisingly successful addition to Angel Olsen’s discography, possessing a clarity in sound and production that benefits her voice and generates a certain peace despite its melancholy. Big Time stays mostly in its lane throughout without much sonic variety, and whilst some of its back-to-back balladry risks blending into itself, Olsen’s irreducible qualities as a singer, songwriter, and her capacity to create sheer beauty as an artist shine through above all else.