WVAU’s #9 Album of the Year: "MY WOMAN" by Angel Olsen

Michael Lovito

All and all, I‰’ve found being a music fan in 2016 to be pretty frustrating. It‰’s hard to think of a high profile release this year that didn‰’t have an over the top or torturously prolonged roll out (Blonde) or insisted on itself by putting out supposedly brilliant but in reality scattershot and unfocused music (The Life of Pablo). All this empty bluster just put the oppressive starkness of many underground releases in even sharper relief. Everywhere I looked, I felt like I was faced with two extremes. Either gorge yourself on maximalist, ego-feeding modern pop or submit yourself to the Spartan rigors of the underground cult of amateurism.

And then, like the celestial being she was named after, Angel Olsen swooped down from the heavens and delivered an album so pure, so honest, so fucking proficient that it restored my faith in the medium and made me love music again.

Ok, maybe that‰’s all a bit over the top. But it is true that My Woman is an incredibly refreshing record, and a lot of that refreshment comes from not only its lack of pretense but also how much it relies on Olsen‰’s natural abilities as a singer and a songwriter. Here we have a prodigiously talented artist in possession of perhaps the most beautiful and beguiling voice of our time, paired together with a tight backing band that comes together to record ‰ÛÒ sometimes live ‰ÛÒ songs that are at once piercingly intimate and exquisitely produced. With My Woman, Olsen and her band look back to the days when song could be both emotionally honest and a perfect pop product and put together a collection of ten tracks that fit into both categories rather snugly.

Olsen wears many hats on this album, and the truth is whether it‰’s that of synth-pop princess (“Intern‰Û), longing girl grouper (“Always Be Mine‰Û) or breathy jazz chanteuse (“Those Were the Days‰Û), they all feel like they belong on the head of the same, genuine person. By giving herself the freedom to play with as many different styles and personas as she pleases, Olsen is able to paint a fuller picture of herself as a romantically and existentially tortured human being. Brilliant as they were, the straight-laced folk of Half Way Home and inconspicuous indie of Burn Your Fire For No Witness stripped Olsen of a lot of her personality for the sake of stylistic consistency. The true beauty of My Woman is how the twists and turns the tracks take in style and structure provide the album with something of an arc. For all of its variety, this is a remarkably cohesive album.

Aside from the inspiring interplay between singer and band, most of this cohesion is thanks to the common theme of desire, both physical and existential, that is found in each of these songs. Whether it‰’s the base romantic desires of “Shut Up Kiss Me‰” or the desire to “die right‰” as expressed in “Sister,‰” there‰’s a sense of reaching out for what you can‰’t have, or at least what you can‰’t have right this minute. It‰’s not emptiness so much as it‰’s hunger, the need to make oneself complete and fully alive through a connection to the outside world. My Woman is all about one woman‰’s struggle to sate that hunger, and the myriad of roadblocks ‰ÛÒ be they her lovers or the voices in her head ‰ÛÒ that stand in her way.

And really, it‰’s this shared sense of purpose among these songs that otherwise take so many different routes that make this thing so great. Olsen has faith in her audience‰’s ability to both indulge in the silly wink winks of “Shut Up Kiss Me‰” and the Crazy Horse psychedelics of “Sister‰” and believe they came from the same person. There‰’s no talking down, no simplifying, no pandering. Olsen follows her muse wherever it takes her, and we‰’re encouraged to sit back with a sense of wonder and applaud the results. The music on My Woman is confessional, yes, but it‰’s also clear that Olsen is putting on a show. We‰’re meant to be swept away by the Phil Spector-lite of “Always Be Mine‰Û‰’s melody and we‰’re meant to feel the hair on the back of necks prick up when we hear Olsen spill her guts out on “Pops.‰” It could be the case that Olsen is writing for herself and about her own feelings, but it‰’s clear what she wants us to feel something too. Wanting to express yourself and evoke a response from the listener may sound like songwriting 101, but it often seems like nowadays many of the most acclaim songwriters (looking at you, Sufjan Stevens) seem to forget the last part.

Olsen takes no shortcuts to get us there either, and that‰’s what makes this album so beautiful. There is no quick elevator pitch, no gimmicks or obvious influences used as sign posts to bring listeners in. Instead, what‰’s required is a leap of faith, a belief that music can still be transcendent and grounded at the same time, that carefully applied pop tropes and emotional honesty can exist in the same groove on the same record. Not enough artists ask us to make such a commitment nowadays. In a world where so many people let us get off easy, I‰’m glad Angel Olsen exists to keep us honest. And I‰’m glad she decided to reward the honest by bringing My Woman into this world.