Angel Olsen doesn’t believe in empty pleasantries, neither in conversation nor in her music. “I don’t like small talk,” the 35-year-old St. Louis singer-songwriter said in a recent New Yorker profile while driving through Asheville, NC, the town she has called home for nearly a decade. The songs on their grandiose sixth album “Big Time” also prefer to plunge into the depths.
“I had a dream last night/We were had a fight/It lasted 25 years” begins the simply titled “Dream Thing”, an atmospheric ballad that imagines an encounter with an ex and feels like an immediate transmission from the subconscious . Later, on the plaintive, acoustic-guitar-driven “This Is How It Works,” she gets even more straight to the point: “I know you can’t talk long, but I’m barely holding on.”
“Big Time” was recorded last year at the end of a particularly turbulent time in Olsen’s life: shortly after she came out to her parents — she had her first romantic relationship and subsequent split with a woman during the pandemic — then her father, her mother died of various diseases within two months. Though these life-threatening events are not explicitly mentioned on the album, “Big Time” (which she recorded in Topanga, California with producer Jonathan Wilson) is charged with a steady stream of weighty, transformative, and refreshingly lucid emotion.
Olsen’s voice has always been an oddly rousing instrument, like an imaginary folk trio of Roy Orbison, Karen Dalton and Lucinda Williams singing in tight harmony. On her electrifying yet edgy 2012 debut album Half Way Home, Olsen defiantly leaned into her vocal idiosyncrasies, infusing nearly every note with an intense trill. In the decade since, on a string of increasingly confident and ambitious albums, she’s learned how to modulate those eccentricities and hit them with an increasingly blunt force. Her previous 2019 album All Mirrors featured dark, almost gothic synth-rock and haunting forays into orchestral pop. On “Big Time” – the first album on which Olsen consciously sings about queer desire – she turns to a particularly traditional genre: country.
In a way it makes sense. Long before the eminently viral “sad girl” aesthetic (a somewhat reductive description that’s stuck with millennial indie rock women like Olsen, Mitski and Phoebe Bridgers), female country stars like Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette found their way the genre to a welcome place to wallow in bottomless melancholy. Both artists feel like touchstones on “Big Time” (“I’ve never been too sad,” Olsen sings at one point, “Too sad that I couldn’t share”). But on torch songs like the rugged “Ghost On” and the jaw-dropping “Right Now,” Olsen strikes a perfect balance between honoring the sounds of country’s past and updating them in her own image. “Why did you have to go and make it weird?” She belts out one of the record’s most sonically grandiose moments – the cascading chorus of “Right Now” – a perfect piece of colloquial lyricism that makes this seemingly timeless song uniquely hers.
Opener and first single “All the Good Times” is a chilled breakup song written by Olsen a few years before the album was recorded; She has said she originally intended to offer it to country star Sturgill Simpson, but it’s hard to imagine it being in the hands of anyone else, with its weary goodness and patient yet still explosive emotional climax. “I can’t say I’m sorry if I don’t feel so uncomfortable anymore,” Olsen sings over light, pounding percussion and a lap steel that blinks like in a Steve Miller song.
While the first half of the album doesn’t skimp on heartbreaking moments (“All the Flowers” is a highlight, highlighting Olsen’s intuitive phrasing and talent for melody), “Big Time” climbs to the second half over a series of tracks to the two of the most devastating songs she has ever composed. The first is “Right Now,” a country lament that turns into a dissonant, stone-eyed confrontation à la Fleetwood Mac’s “Silver Spring” in its last minute: “I need you to look at me and listen,” intones Olsen, “I am the past coming back to haunt you.”
Then there’s “Go Home,” an elaborate conflagration of a song that sounds like antiquated theater burning down in slow motion. “I want to go home,” Olsen wails like someone who knows it’s too late to “go back to the little things.” Her vocal performance is grueling, but by the end of the song she has found a kind of peace: “Forget the old dream,” she sings, “I got a new thing.”
Olsen’s music resists simple sentiments, and “Big Time” ends on a suitably ambiguous note. If she wanted an uncomplicated happy ending, she might have ended with the breezy, amorous title track, which Olsen wrote with current partner Beau Thibodeaux. (The chorus centers around one of the intimate catchphrases of their relationship: “I love you very much.”)
The record instead fades out with “Chasing the Sun,” a song that also depicts a budding new love and features some of Olsen’s most playful lyrics — “write you a postcard if you’re in the other room” — but his plaintive arrangement of piano and strings make it sound like an elegy. Olsen seems to be reflecting once again on the transformative nature of grief: it may never go away entirely, but over time it may add an extra sparkle to hard-earned good times.