Angel Olsen: Big Time — Loss and love permeate her best album so far

Big Time
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Artist: Angel Olsen
Genre: Americana
Label: Jagjaguwar

In 2019 Angel Olsen told The Irish Times: “I feel like I’ve been in denial of the fact that when I write my best, it’s usually when something terrible has happened.” Celebration and tragedy are intricately woven into the narrative of Big Time, the fifth studio album by the North Carolina-based artist. Most of these songs were written during the time she publicly came out as a gay woman at the age of 34, including to her parents. Having celebrated that milestone with a sense of freedom and jubilation, calamity struck when her father died suddenly three days later, and her mother tragically followed suit a short time later.

The album was recorded three weeks after her mother’s funeral and is understandably an emotionally raw affair. While her grief is channelled into songs such as Ghost On; All the Good Times; and Go Home (“How can I go on with all those old dreams? I am a ghost now, living those old scenes”), the other major event in her recent life — falling deeply in love — tussles for head space amid the melancholia. All the Flowers is quietly jubilant, with lines such as “Never thought the day would come that I would find someone to love me only” making no bones about Olsen’s gratitude. Right Now sees her croon “I need to be myself, I won’t live another lie / About the feelings that I have, I won’t be with you and hide”, while there is a sense of catharsis to Through the Fires, a song about searching for optimism in the midst of tragedy.

Musically, Olsen has proven herself an eclectic, versatile songwriter in the decade since her debut was released. She masters the fine line between experimentalism and the kind of song you might hear at a dusty roadside bar in the American Midwest. On each of these songs, she perfectly pitches her voice to suit the changing mood. The trill of Hammond organ on All the Good Times rolls into a celebratory Motown-esque affair with brass and cascading drums. You could easily imagine a country legend such as Tammy Wynette or Patsy Cline crooning the title track or the lonesome waltz of This Is How it Works. All the Flowers has a timeless feel akin to Dusty Springfield singing a Bacharach/David composition, while the murmured rumble of Through the Fires recalls early Springsteen. Go Home is the album’s epic musical centrepiece, a raw burst of emotion that begins with the slow drip of piano before building to a cacophonic climax.

It might have taken “something terrible” to make a record like this, but it may well turn out to be Olsen’s magnum opus.

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy is a freelance journalist and broadcaster. She writes about music and the arts for The Irish Times