Compiled rejects and demos reveal new shades of Angel Olsen
Phases is an interesting project for as dynamic and pertinent an artist as Angel Olsen. A collection of demos, B-sides and covers culled from the past five years, an album of this sort is more typical of a legacy act, ostensibly offering insights into a once more bountiful creative process while really serving to keep the brand alive and spur interest in the impending anniversary-of-something-or-other tour. Angel Olsen, fortunately, shows no signs of withering creativity and doesn’t seem to give much of a damn about any “brand,” opting to fashion her rarities and discards into something vibrant, challenging, and essential for fans.
The album paints a fragmentary portrait of the iconoclastic Olsen. It is not sequenced chronologically and is as such averse to logical perception; it is not intended as a line of stepping-stones guiding listeners from her musical infancy towards last year’s My Woman, her most unqualified success. Phases rather makes clear that there has been no period of creative juvenility in Olsen’s young career.
The music is brashly, sometimes chillingly, sparse – expected for Olsen’s work circa Half Way Home and Burn Your Fire For No Witness but still there in the comparatively lush, easily distinguishable tunes from around My Woman. There is an elemental power to the psychedelic, circling chords and primal, insistent instrumentation of those tracks. “Special” is a seedier relative of My Woman’s “Sister,” capturing its trancelike vibe while withholding the mercy of release; “Sweet Dreams” evokes Crazy Horse in its haphazard garage power, while Olsen’s ghostly wails cast over it a haunting, desperate loneliness.
That loneliness even more dramatically underscores the solo tracks, each utterly skeletal and breathlessly intimate. Olsen regularly explores the paradoxes and ambiguities of the heart, its alternating barriers and vulnerabilities, the purity of yearning and the risk of action it inspires with piercing rawness and clarity. “All the years I spent chasing a meaning / How unfair to have a heart that’s still beating / When I can’t just love a moment that’s fleeting,” she sings matter-of-factly on “How Many Disasters,” to chilling effect. Although the songs on Phases are uniformly stellar, this lyrical tendency is by now established in Olsen’s music so they do not necessarily surprise (and they shouldn’t – they are old).
The album’s atemporal format, however, emphasizes the elasticity of her voice in inhabiting these emotional spectra in a way her previous LPs haven’t. Olsen is an unorthodox singer but a consistently evocative one, and stacking the various characters her voice has assumed over time makes for an enthralling trip. Across the songs she is hopeful, detached, frail, commanding, uncertain, defiant, disillusioned – sometimes a number of these in the span of a single track (“California”) – and always utterly believable. When she lends her voice to the few covers in the set (most notably a metallic, jarring reading of Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher Than the Rest”), she reliably finds new layers of meaning in the words, the elusive aspiration of all musical interpretations. The album’s blithe oscillation between ages cements its stature as a vital piece of art – not an artifact.
Still, I am curious about how Phases will inevitably be regarded in Angel Olsen’s discography. It’s something of a castoff, a weird aside in the gulf between My Woman and what will follow – not an insignificant juncture, but by now I may have devoted more mental energy to assessing the album than Olsen did in deciding to release it. All considerations of intent and consequence aside, though, this is a fascinating glimpse into the process and early development of an idiosyncratic, protean, and essential artist – an effective summation and exploration of the past five years that deepens our understanding of Olsen as much as it provokes excited thought on what she might offer next.