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Rough Around The Edges: The Understated Honesty of “Phases”

words by Bridget Conway

With the release of My Woman last year, Angel Olsen cemented herself as a powerful force in music. Multifaceted, rich, electric, My Woman burst away from the minimalist style of Olsen’s previous folk albums, while incorporating the same tender and honest lyrical and vocal style. In Phases, the recently released collection of demos, covers, and never-before-released tracks, Olsen pulls a thread through much of her work, revealing tenderness, nostalgia, and a strange sense of confidence. Olsen’s lyrics have always been honest; speaking to love and loss, masterfully crafting narrative and metaphor. Like a chameleon, her voice is ambiguous and symphonic, reflecting and intensifying whatever mood the song conveys (this also comes across in her recent duets with both Alex Cameron “Stranger’s Kiss”and Hamilton Leithauser “Heartstruck”, both of which I highly recommend). Whereas Olsen’s previous albums are more stylistically cohesive, what is cohesive about Phases is Olsen’s lyrical genius, her stunning voice, and her personal growth. Phases places Olsen’s history on show for all to hear; it is a curated collection of Olsen’s musical process.

Phases is organized chronologically, literally into Olsen’s musical and personal phases; the album opens with her two most recently recorded songs—“Fly On Your Wall” and “Special.” “Fly On Your Wall,”which was previously included on the Bandcamp-only, anti-Trump fundraiser Our First 100 Days, utilizes deep bass and drums, building up to a crescendo that showcases Olsen’s voice in the lyric “A love never made is still mine/If only real in my mind.” Olsen demonstrates a certain type of confidence found in honesty by siphoning musical power from admission of vulnerability: “I found a feeling inside/Or should I say it found me/I turned into someone I/Never imagined I’d be.” Olsen’s unwavering voice and open lyrics tells us that she’s confident in her ability, her emotions, and her music–old and new. “Special,” a new song recorded at the same time as My Woman, languishes in this same electricity, unapologetically pulling the listener through seven and a half minutes of emotional movement. The song relies on Olsen’s dynamic voice and guitar. Beginning with both vocals and backing low and subdued, as the song expands, piercing guitar notes build toward a slow, almost psychedelic ending.

The next two songs on the collection are “Only With You” and “All Right Now,” demos of releases off of the 2014 release Burn Your Fire For No Witness. In their minimalist, solo style, they both lament and confront past loss. Olsen takes the strength discovered in “Fly On Your Wall” and “Special” into emotional vulnerability on “Only With You.” In “Only With You,” she places the raw, tender emotions associated with the loss of love directly in front  Despite this pain, Olsen is still herself—singing, as though a mother would to a child, that she does “not have to reach out/To somebody new” because it’s “always been right” in “All Right Now.” In this chronology, Olsen creates a narrative of self-reliance, demonstrating how this quality has been present since the beginning of her work. “Sweet Dreams,” “California,” and “May as Well” are also all re-releases of work off of Olsen’s previous albums, tenderly and earnestly calling to a sense of nostalgia for listeners. The raw, rougher sound of these songs translate well to Phases, calling back to Olsen’s earlier work. “Sweet Dreams” and “California” are playful, sinking into a solid, rhythmic pattern that makes you want to sway, even if the songs aren’t particularly upbeat. “May as Well” uses just one acoustic guitar, not the full backing of “Sweet Dreams” and “California,” but this rhythm is still very much present in the mellow cadence of Olsen’s voice.

“Sans” and “How Many Disasters” are previously unreleased songs that demonstrate, perhaps better than any other set of songs on Phases, Olsen’s quiet honesty. On these two tracks, her voice very much seems as if she’s on the verge of tears; she invites listeners to be part of her vulnerability, as if we were experiencing these emotions simultaneously.  On “Sans,” Olsen earnestly tells us of the pain of being in “the darker hour when you’re far away from home” with a low, constant strumming of electric guitar while singing along with a high voice. Following “Sans” are “Sweet Dreams” and “California,” two rollicking, poetic folk ballads from her 2013 release Sleepwalker. Following is a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher Than the Rest,” to which Olsen perfectly adapts to her own sweeter, more folk inspired style with acoustic guitar and coy, playful vocals. She also covers Roky Erikson’s “For You” and Hoyt Axton’s “Endless Road.” Olsen manipulates these classics and puts her own twist on them; they become stunning and otherworldly, both feeling like vintage classics and modern contemplations, ultimately her own.

Phases seems like Olsen’s manifesto—in releasing this compilation, it seems like she is laying herself out without any pretention or assumption, for listeners to view her candor and raw emotion—this is who I am and this is where I have been. Whereas her past albums focus on one distinctive sound each, Olsen lays out her musical phases to create personal narrative in Phases–one that is proud of her folk roots and her rock future.  Phases is an album of introspection and honesty, not just for Olsen, but also for the listeners she invites into this intimate space.