When measured in albums, Angel Olsen’s career trajectory mirrors that of another great American indie band, The War On Drugs: both released critically acclaimed second albums that I thought would also become their commercial breakthrough, but weren’t quite. And both acts then followed up their second albums with third outings that proved to be huge in every way. In short, My Woman is Angel Olsen’s Lost in the Dream.
For this album, Olsen has tweaked her signature sound. This is apparent from the opening seconds of the album, in which listeners are greeted by the sound of a synthesizer, an instrument never employed previously by Olsen. In her music videos for My Woman, Olsen has also reinvented her look, donning a silver wig, which if you think about it, is kind of the sartorial equivalent of a synthesizer.
But My Woman presents listeners with a bigger change in production than it does in sound or persona. Producer Justin Raisen has worked with a number of pop acts, and his sonic imprint here is noticeable. Olsen’s voice is front and center in the mix, sailing over the instruments. This choice stands in stark contrast to how John Congleton produced Olsen on Burn Your Fire For No Witness. On that album, songs seemed to emerge out of the ether, then disappeared when they were done. Even when Burn Your Fire was loud, it was quiet.
By contrast, My Woman is more confident in its song structures and overall direction, with Olsen now planting her feet and singing straight to you, rather than crooning softly in the next room.The timbre of her formidable voice varies throughout the album, taking on a clear, piercing tone on one track, then a warm and familiar warble the next.
Olsen’s songs continue to feature the tasteful dynamics that she has always done so well, and her band seems to play more confidently, with a couple of guitar solos really clinching some of the longer tracks. (Though oddly, the band seemed quite hesitant when I saw them play the Park Theatre, pre-My Woman, in June.)
The album also showcases the breadth of Olsen’s songwriting, from the 50s-inflected rock n’ roll of “Shut Up Kiss Me,” to my personal favourite, “Heart Shaped Face,” which the band lends a bit of swagger courtesy of a rhythm change-up halfway through. There’s also the charging “Not Gonna Kill You,” and the patient sprawl of “Woman” and “Sister,” two 7-minute tracks that really allow the band to stretch out and settle into a groove. The only track I’m not entirely sold on is the closer, “Pops,” with its echoing, insistent piano and pleading vocal melody.
Taken as a whole, My Woman is certainly affecting, though not in the same way that Burn Your Fire was. The poppier production of My Woman has helped Olsen reach a larger audience than ever before, and that’s a good thing. Still, I’m partial to the stuffy, bedroom folk intimacy of Burn Your Fire: an album which was more emotionally harrowing, but which also ended on a bright, hopeful note. But My Woman is a tour de force in a different way, and listening to it, it’s clear that Olsen has improved her songwriting and studio intuition in almost every way. With enlarged scope comes more challenges and potential pitfalls, of course, but Olsen seems to have talent to spare, and I’m interested to see what direction she chooses next.