Midway through Angel Olsen’s fourth release as a solo artist comes a plea – no…a demand, and an invocation. “Oh, let the light shine in”, she sings, as the drum rolls abide in the mid-section of ‘Not Gonna Kill You’ and the spectre of Let It Bleed dances chaotically in the background; dusky, tinged with psychedelia and menace. The darkness inherent in Olsen’s work can often be concealed within a giddy garage rock blitz or folk country serenade, but on My Woman – more so than ever – words and music are in complete collusion.
From her debut EP in 2010 to Half Way Home two years later – just Olsen and guitar – and 2014’s sublime Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Olsen has explored the vagaries of love, betrayal, and loneliness, both with a sardonic nudge-and-wink and self-eviscerating honesty. The themes abound once more, the garage/folk frameworks still accounted for, but My Woman is a much more varied release than what Olsen has put out previously. Drummer Josh Jaegar and guitarist Stewart Bronaugh remain in the fold from Burn Your Fire For No Witness, the band now expanded to include Emily Elhaj on bass. Building on that record, Olsen and her collaborators have further explored the sonic landscape to unearth nuggets of pristine power pop, blues and soul, and good ol’ fashioned rock’n’roll.
‘Give It Up’ doesn’t hold back from the off as Olsen slowly draws the lyrics out over the band’s thump, leading into the sparse, descending four note solo – “Hurts to be around you/ I can’t stand you lying/ Whenever you’re beside me/ A part of me is dying”. Again on ‘Never Be Mine’, another corrosive admission -“I would watch you look right through me/ Right through every word that I say.” If these songs didn’t sound like they could have come from The dB’s or The Clean you might almost gloss over the candour. ‘Sister’ unfolds with a country grain, kicking up a gear at the midway point and morphing into something along the Tom Petty/Neil Young axis of freak-Americana.
It’s a transformation typical of an album will suddenly go from its more loose and ready power pop-oriented numbers to something with a bold FM radio sheen. As My Woman winds down it also closes in with the soulful intimacy of ‘Those Were The Days’, that whispered passion taking a harder edge as ‘Woman’ then progresses through its instrumental passages and a bluesy guitar solo bends and floats alongside Olsen’s high notes. By the time ‘Pops’ draws things to a close, it’s with a weariness in the delivery. “I’m not playing anymore/ Did all that before” Olsen sings, evoking Harry Nilsson with a final, fatal ravaging of the heart – “I’ll be the thing that lives in the dream when it’s gone.”
To ruminate on the darkness, though, is to do My Woman a disservice as it flits deftly from shadow into light, and the luminous ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ remains 2016’s most joyous single. When all’s said and done, you only have to go back to ‘Intern’ where her intentions are made clear at the album’s outset – “I just wanna be alive/ Make something real.” It’s a search for perfection in difficult circumstances, a continuing process. With Burn Your Fire For No Witness, and now No Woman, Olsen can’t be far from her destination.