Desolation is a pit dark on all sides. Upon falling in, it is difficult to believe you’ve known anything other than the darkness, or will ever know. Inevitably, we emerge without realizing it, and normality seems an unnerving, but strangely welcome companion. Inevitably, Angel Olsen would move on, part the curtains, and let in My Woman. 2010’s Strange Cacti, her first album, was a collection of reverbed mumblings in a cold desert. Achingly alone, it felt as if she accidentally published the inscriptions walling the inside of her broken heart; entries we weren’t meant to hear. But we said, “We’re with you Angel! We know your pain!” We all cried. 2014’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness was more expansive, operatic in its mourning, but hinted at accessibility. She charmed us with fresh wry takes on longing: “Are you lonely too/High Five! /So am I!” She’s no longer the warbling Johnny-Cash of her earlier work, murmuring in some lonely room. This is all Olsen, swaying in a glittery night disco. She’s tossed the fear over her shoulder like a flimsy cigarette, or if she hasn’t, she’s a damn good liar.
In the opener, Intern, ambient and synth-infused, Olsen is a dreamy sage. If before she was the victim, a casualty to the sorrows that befell her, now she’s the boss pulling the strings. “It’s just another intern with a resume/I’m gonna fall in love with you someday,” she coos. She’s wiser, her lyrics ghostly warnings to her younger self. The catchiest of the album, “Shut Up and Kiss Me,” is a teaser from the onset, glamorously poking fun at 80’s feminine pop. It’s simple, two-chord bubblegum, far removed from the folk storytelling of her origin.
Once finished dancing flirtatiously, the B side sets you down, hands you a soda, and tells you to take a breather. Her longer, more introspective songs are faintly reminiscent of her pre-2016 sorrows. There’s the sprawling almost 8-minute long Sister that crescendos into Fleetwood Mac-esque guitar solo. It starts hopefully: “I want to go where/nobody knows fear,” but then develops forlornly, as “All my life I thought I’d change” reverberates over and over in the second half. Optimism is so often tinted with fear; perhaps happiness has asserted itself three albums too late.
In “Those Were the Days,” her voice floats on a pond to nowhere. The listener is drowsily lifted from a foggy sleep. It is difficult to discern if the song is real or simply something dreamt up. Her voice blooms in “Woman,” confidently challenging, “I dare you to understand / what makes me a woman.” The album ends with the piano ballad “Pops,” a sober recalculation from the song before. “I’m not playing anymore/Did all that before,” she says gently. It’s not evident in the album when exactly Olsen is playing around. Humor is often a weak, translucent umbrella over hurting, and despondency a wary outcome of resilience.
If you’re unfamiliar with Olsen’s isolationist frankness and dark narratives, it’s ok to catch up now, especially if you have some semblance of happiness in your life. She’s different now. This album won’t cause disturbed (are you suicidal?) glances when played in public. Her lyrics are admittedly, blander, and her voice has lost its haunted beauty, but it seems that finally, Olsen is no longer restricted to the redundant pit of darkness. She has wings.