Angel Olsen‘s story is similar to any number of talented indie singer-songwriters in recent years, having been introduced to listeners via collaboration with an artist of known quantity. Olsen, born in Missouri and now based in Chicago, has spent a good portion of the last couple years backing Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy, as a member of his new band, The Cairo Gang, both on stage and in the studio, her credits appearing on both the Now Here’s My Plan EP from earlier this year, and last year’s Wolfroy Goes to Town. The partnership is one that makes perfect sense, both singer-songwriters possessing their own singular voice, and a gorgeously gothic take on folk and Americana. Based on the strength of new album Half Way Home, however, Olsen’s talent is far too immense to be relegated to the side of the stage.
Let’s go back to that singular voice of Olsen’s. It’s at once the sound of a young woman and an old soul. Her vocals display a vulnerability, but it’s tempered and weathered and given a proper stage to expand and contract in the most magnificent of ways. Olsen sings with a great deal of expression and power, but with a sadness that’s both chilling and curiously beautiful. Detached from any context, it would be easy to mistake Olsen’s music for a lost folk or country rock record from the late ’60s or early ’70s. Which likewise speaks to the classic sound of her songs, which are usually quite simple in structure, but contain a slow burning complexity that grows all the more intriguing the deeper each song goes.
Olsen’s tangle of complex emotional weight and deceptively simple structures comes in many shapes and forms throughout Half Way Home, though each permutation finds her tugging at heartstrings and misting up tear ducts in unique ways. Leadoff track “Acrobat” comes across as a simple love song, but over the gentle plucks of acoustic guitar, Olsen reveals a deep yearning that goes beyond mere physical affection: “I’m just a lady with some time/I want to be made out of love/ I want to be made into life.” “The Waiting” expands into a brighter, `60s-style folk-pop tune, rich with jangly guitar riffs and wonderful backing vocals, with Olsen defining herself with stronger resolve as she sings, “I’ve forgiven myself and there’s no going back/ I want to be the one who knows the best way.” And in the Morricone-style Western dirge “The Sky Opened Up,” Olsen’s endearing vulnerability turns into an almost spectral eeriness, marking a particularly impressive display of versatility with only a few subtle elements.
There’s a lot of familiar ideas and haunts on Half Way Home — love, sex, death, loneliness, fear — all things that everyone feels and experiences, but which always come loaded with more complexity than we ever expect them to. So it is with Angel Olsen’s songs, which seem perfectly simple and accessible on first listen, but invariably linger through the melancholy, joy or some other intangible emotions they evoke within the listener. These songs aren’t easily forgotten, but when they sound so delicately beautiful or emotionally resonant, it’s best to hold on to them and never let them go.
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.