Angel Olsen - Phases

by Jon Burke Rating:8 Release Date:2017-11-10
Angel Olsen - Phases
Angel Olsen - Phases

Imagine if Roy Orbison, with all of his sugary darkness and gloriously bizarre song structures, were somehow alive today. Much like Johnny Cash, he’d probably be a fixture on Rick Rubin’s couch, listening to edgy contemporary music and trying to strum his way back into the limelight. And again, like Johnny, there would probably be a few moments when something would click, and the planets would align, and suddenly one of the elder gods of popular music would offer-up a brilliantly bleak Nick Cave or Will Oldham cover… Except with Roy it wouldn’t be Nick Cave or Will Oldham. No, Roy’s Southern Gothic romanticism always felt hauntingly beautiful, slightly sweet and incredibly nuanced and thus Roy’s true modern analog is Angel Olsen.

Please stop reading right now if you just thought: ‘but what about Lana Del Rey?’ That’s the kind of thinking that turned Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” into a hit record. That’s the kind of thinking that deifies “Blurred Lines” and “Locked out of Heaven” while conveniently forgetting about “Got to Give It Up” and “Message in a Bottle.” Life is too short for shit pop and, no matter how shiny the package, said shit will always begin to stink when contrasted with the real deal and Angel Olsen is nothing but real.

Olsen’s latest, Phases, is a career-spanning collection of rarities and unreleased tracks. Phases chronicles the evolution of a brilliant artist from lo-fi home recordings, made in 2010, to highly polished unreleased material from her 2016 masterwork, My Woman. Though she remains subtle to the point of minimalism throughout most of the songs on Phases, the confidence in Olsen’s voice, her truest instrument, clearly grows with each increasingly successful record. By the time she recorded “Special,” for the My Woman sessions, Olsen’s plaintive voice and lonely strumming sound evolved to encompass a strutting, atmospheric, guitar solo. Olsen’s voice now clearly demarcating the difference between love, loss and languid moods. Track-after-track, Phases reaffirms the mistake many critics have made in referring to Olsen as fragile.

One highlight from Phases is, “California,” a sweet, rather sexy, love song in which, vocally, Olsen’s round, robust tonal range is fully on-display. She also plays lyrically with the romanticized notion of California as an American state of mind as much as it is an actual State:

“On the way to California/ And I don't mean California literally/ I was thinking, it's so comforting quiet/ You read so softly over my head/ It's late but I'm maintaining interest in the things that you say/ I could listen to you speak all day.”

Two of the most interesting tracks from Phases are actually covers. First, “Tougher than the Rest,” which is a cut from Bruce Springsteen’s tragically underrated Tunnel of Love. Whereas Springsteen’s version is a thumping, synthed-out, 80s slow burner, Olsen’s version is stripped-down in every sense. Olsen’s voice seems to creep out of a hissing fog, her subtle strumming almost off-tempo. For a moment she sounds drunk, her words slurred, as if she was living the nightmare of Springsteen’s barfly fantasy made real. The core of the original song is a sort of foxhole prayer for companionship in a sea of loneliness. Olsen’s take feels like the last girl on the dancefloor, slow dancing by herself, using Springsteen’s lyrics as coping mechanism for her isolation. Olsen’s take adds a darker layer to Springsteen’s already dark tune.

Another cover, “Endless Road” originated from an episode of Bonanza, as sung by American songwriting legend, Hoyt Axton—famous for having written “Heartbreak Hotel”. Axton’s original is relatively unknown, outside of the aforementioned Bonanza episode, but Olsen’s version leads one to ponder why “Endless Road” isn’t more famous than it is. Skillfully picked-out, Olsen’s take is a heartbreaking acoustic road song that simultaneously conjures the ghost of Townes Van Zandt and feels like the best song Gillian Welch never wrote. Though Olsen’s sadness is pervasive, over the track’s brief two minute run, she forms a stolid resolve as if this too shall pass. “Endless Road” is Phases’ closer and a perfect summation of Angel Olsen’s talent: she knows her music history, has powerful chops, a stunning voice and the ability to make a sound all her own.

Overall Rating (2)

5 out of 5 stars