I Dare You To Understand What Makes Me a Woman: A Review of Angel Olsen’s album “MY WOMAN”

By Maddie Farr ’18a1136135788_10.jpg

On “Sister,” one of the B-sides off of Angel Olsen’s recently released album MY WOMAN, she sings, “I want to live life / I want to die right…” Olsen then allows the music to swell and pause before she croons the end of her sentence: “…next to you.” When I first heard this song, I didn’t realize the two phrases were connected, that a you was being directly addressed in the first line. The distance between the two sentiments suggests a desire for a closeness that is both elusive and necessary. It is exactly this complexity that defines Angel Olsen’s musical project.

Throughout MY WOMAN, Olsen immerses herself in these questions: what do we want from life? What are we seeking? Love, satisfaction, intimacy, artistic expression, some sort of elusive sense of adventure and truth? Can these qualities coexist, or does being a woman who loves men and also an artist mean that your life will always be delineated by sacrifice and compromise? These are the concerns that have defined Angel Olsen’s rich career thus far, and I see MY WOMAN as another gorgeous and wise attempt to grapple with them. In the process, she has created a sonically impressive and diverse album that offers a strong, if prismatic, definition of how to be alive, and a WOMAN.

MY WOMAN, in Angel Olsen’s traditionally retro fashion, is organized into A-sides and B-sides. The A-sides are where Olsen shows us that she can write a really good pop song; “Never Be Mine” and “Shut Up Kiss Me” are both great examples of the indie rock charm that she is known for. In contrast, the B-sides – such as “Sister” and “Woman,” for example – are brooding, extended ballads that offer no identifiable conclusions or hooks but leave the listener (or at least me) emotionally ravaged. I recommend listening to the album from start to finish in one sitting, to get the full sonic effect that Olsen intended.

There is a lot to be said about Olsen’s sound – her otherworldly voice and the retro quality of her production – but what I’m most concerned with is what she has to say. Her lyrics are complex and questioning, full of unbridled emotion, love and heartache. On “Heart Shaped Face,” a slow-burning stunner of a song, Olsen sings devastating lyrics with composed clarity: “Was it me you were thinking of / all the time when you thought of me? / Or was it your mother? / Or was it your shelter? / Or was it another with a heart-shaped face?” She sings of the difficulties of true intimacy with a nuance that judges neither herself nor her lovers – all Angel Olsen is really seeking is the Truth, capital T.

Another concern of MY WOMAN is one that has occupied Olsen for her whole career, from her lo-fi 2010 debut Strange Cacti, to 2012’s haunting Half Way Home, through her 2014 breakthrough Burn Your Fire For No Witness, and now. As an artist, as a songwriter and performer, Angel Olsen is aware that she lives in the realm of memory. On “Drunk and With Dreams,” one of the most stunning songs off Strange Cacti, she sings, “Someone has got to go on believing / Someone has got to speak of a feeling / Someone has got to let down their guard for someone / And I’ll be the one, be the one, I do not mind.” Holding on to the past, capturing an emotion – this is the cosmic task to which Angel Olsen has committed herself. Later on in the album, on “Creator/Destroyer,” she compares herself to a ghost: “And like a ghost that hangs around and won’t forgive its earthly sins / I’ve carried on this love for you / It’s how my body lives.”

On the last track of MY WOMAN, Olsen challenges herself to question her body’s task of memory. The track is “Pops,” and it is brutal, tragic, and hopeful at the same time. The song appears to be addressed to a lover, begging him to believe the depth and truth of her love: “All those people, they don’t see me / Baby don’t leave, please believe me / Couldn’t love ’em if I tried to / No one understands me like you.” These lines remind me of a quote by the famous folk artist Joan Baez: “The easiest kind of relationship for me is with ten thousand people. The hardest is with one.” The role of artist, of memory-keeper, is not as easy to accept at age 29. Nearly in tears (or so I imagine because I am DEFINITELY in tears), Olsen sings, “I’m not playin’ anymore / Did all that before.” She doesn’t want to be aloof. She doesn’t want the chase. She doesn’t want to live inside her art. She only wants love.

But even now, it’s not that simple. Angel Olsen is an artist, and she is a woman. (She is also an Aquarius, which is a conversation for another time.) At the end of the song, she accepts the inherent sacrifice she embodies, only pleading: “Baby, don’t forget, don’t forget it’s our song.” “Pops” closes with the haunting repetition of this line: “I’ll be the thing that lives in the dream when it’s gone.” That’s MY WOMAN.

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