Maybe it’s in the Bible or maybe it’s not, but somewhere in ancient texts there is talk of angels like birds, fierce with power and talons. The strongest of these, of course, was Satan himself, who left God’s side to found his own burning kingdom, damned or not. I’m not talking about evil at all; rather, a disregard for the banality of a black and white morality. That kind of angel is the the only being I envision when listening to My Woman, or anything else in Angel Olsen’s smoldering discography.
The earliest recordings we heard from Olsen were shadowy and resigned, limited to skeletal acoustic fragments that nonetheless bloomed with pain and desire. After her initial cassette-only release Strange Cacti in 2011, a whispery full-length debut, Halfway Home in 2012, and 2014’s white-hot Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Olsen’s sound has altered exponentially. In part, this can be chalked up to the tools she had access to; in interviews she’s discussed an ever-present vision for her sound that she has only lately been able to carry out beyond an acoustic guitar and a home recording setup.
That vision seems to have become flesh on My Woman, which cannot really be categorized as folk, though that’s the genre most easily ascribed to the rest of her oeuvre. But the heat of a wound is still providing fuel; if Halfway Home and Witness were simmering pots, My Woman is a kettle singing on an open flame, a burner left on too long and blackening the kitchen wall with its smoke.
Produced with Justin Raisen, Woman is a collection of veering, playful psych-rock whose songwriting still cuts to the quick: On “Sister,” a single phrase, “All my life I thought I’d change,” grows from refrain to terrifying confession to wordless aria, and, finally, shrinks back to a resigned hum. There is no resolution—the epiphany comes in the exploration, admission, acceptance.
Many of the song titles use words that are made to describe the female condition–including the album opener “Intern”–but more specifically “Sister,” “Woman,” “Heart Shaped Face.” Hell, I’m tempted to include the phrase “Never Be Mine” as a description of the female condition, too. That one is a jaunty alt-country tune cloaked in unrequited love, a study in what stays hidden and how that loss further shapes desire–”He wants to know why / He wants to know why / I only want to know you.” It’s quickly followed up by what could be its foil, the deranged and delicious desperation of “Shut Up Kiss Me,” a demand for female desire to be taken seriously and its intensity borders on parody.
It is tempting to hear “angel” and think fluff, heaven, and perfection. Perhaps more so when the latest album from the singer/songwriter is a willful exploration of womanhood. Those who really listen to Olsen won’t be surprised that it’s a clever bait and switch, though. She’s been pegged as the big-eyed singing sufferer since she began, why not lean all the way into the archetype and watch it bend under the weight of her actual personhood?
The album’s final track, “Pops,” might be an affectionate nickname for a father figure, or it might not be. She sings: I’ll be the thing that lives in the dream when it’s gone. It’s a searing line from a speaker who understands their place is to live within an eternally failing paradox. You could call it personhood, you could definitely call it womanhood. She’s singing about existing inside of a dead dream–some consider that heaven, some call it hell. Olsen doesn’t name it, but when she bleats out that final line, she sounds motherfucking angelic.