Angel Olsen made it clear long ago she was ready for the big time. Albums don’t really get much bigger than her 2019 record All Mirrors, an introspective exploration of the self, orchestrated with string sections and bathed in a radiant glow of synthesizers. It seems only natural that her next instinct would be to scale back a bit, releasing those very same songs in dramatically stripped-down fashion on 2020’s Whole New Mess and then taking a somewhat kitschier diversion with the ’80s covers EP Aisles. But when it came time to mark her return to a brighter spotlight and reveal the lush, Nashville-inspired arrangements of her sixth album Big Time, she did so with a wink and a smirk, via promotional posters with statements that read “It’s not country, but it’s not not country,” “Out with the bangs, in with the twangs,” and “Singing some of the saddest songs you’ve ever heard…and a few happy ones!”
Olsen is joking, but she’s not kidding. Big Time is her first album since her 2012 debut Half Way Home to be richly rooted in country music sounds and arrangements, and it’s an album born of a pivotal, emotionally overwhelming time in her personal life. The title comes from its stunning waltz of a title track, wherein Angel sings “I’m loving you big time, I’m loving you more,” a statement of big-hearted joy and affirmation that follows a much heavier realization: “Guess I had to be losing to get here on time.” The album is built around this central, life-changing contrast, written following Olsen coming out as queer and falling in love, which happened shortly before the deaths of both of her parents. Big Time is born of both triumph and tragedy, grief and self-discovery, a reflection of the most basic and universal of life’s highest highs and devastating lows.
Whether or not you’d consider Big Time some of Olsen’s saddest songs to date might depend on how devastating you’d consider previous tearjerkers like 2014’s “Windows” (me? very). Though they are, unquestionably, among her prettiest. What makes these songs cut closer to the bone is how intensely personal they are, all of Big Time‘s highlights coming from a deeply intimate place. Tellingly, it opens with a breakup song. “All the Good Times” gives away some of the plot in its title; like a similarly titled song from Al Green, we can surmise off the bat that those good times are in the past, which Olsen phrases so eloquently and gracefully, her words flowing with a kind of seamless fluidity: “Well I’ve tried to come find you, But I just don’t know where to begin/If you’ve ever been open, there’s no way of knowin’/With the way that knowin’ you has been/Was it always so broken?” All of it sounds incredible, backed by a Harvest-era Neil Young country rock sound and bright flashes of horns.
The idea that Big Time is a country record comes as much from its sentiments as its reverb-at-the-Opry sounds. There’s an abundance of lap steel, rim clicks and piano to be found here, as well as the hard-earned perspective that comes from real heartbreak and loss. She orchestrates her harshest ache with a soaring arrangement on “Go Home,” one of the few moments that echo the art-pop grandeur of All Mirrors, as she sings, “I’m dancing, baby/But I feel like dying.” “Right Now” opens with a simple, “It’s time to let it go,” but the standout ballad reaches a dynamic climax as Olsen gets closer to the source of the fracture, asking, “Why’d you have to go and make it weird?” And with the Mazzy Star-gone-Western waltz of “This Is How It Works,” Olsen chooses real affection as an escape route from her sadness: “It’s a hard time again/Tell me something good/Pull me out from what I’m in.“
Angel Olsen’s cowgirl epic wraps up with a gorgeously gentle silver screen credit roll on “Chasing the Sun,” her sweetest affirmation of that being in love is something worth celebrating. “If you’re looking for something to do, drop everything I’m doing, nobody needs me here,” she sings. “I’ll go wherever you’re going, I’ll be somewhere near.” It’s the happy ending to the saga, the moment where the intimacy we witness isn’t doubt or pain, but in finding comfort in quiet moments and being able to let someone else in. There are tears along the way, some moments of feeling lost and alone, but as promised, we get to go out on one of the happy ones.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.