By the time we hit Bruce Springsteen’s Tougher Than The Rest - two thirds of the way through this album of b-sides and oddities – there is no surprise to hear that this sad eyed love song of the lowlands has been made skeletal and even more potent.
Angel Olsen’s approach on almost all these songs is to strip, pare, expose and then rebuild in ways that leave no room for anything but subtext. Unlike the relatively smooth sound of last year’s My Woman, Phases is as bothered with niceties as it is with overlays.
Take All Right Now which is a song that might elsewhere be called haunting (spectral voice, weighted space, low boom bass drum) but is in fact quite physical and present. Or California which feels like Wilco as interpreted by Roy Orbison and Tiny Tim. Seriously.
This isn’t to say that Phases is a quiet record: it does after all draw from almost a decade of music, during which she has been both low-impact and hard edged, as the situation demanded.
One song, Special, is from the sessions which preceded My Woman, and carries on that album’s doomed-to-not-die PJ Harvey mode of psych blues fed through spooky folk. Another, Fly On Your Wall, is the stand-alone single she released addressing the buffoon in the White House and opens this set with hard-strummed acoustics and bit more of that Orbison dramatics.
This album does take a turn further to interiors in many moments, with How Many Disastersessentially a woman, a guitar and a microphone set up in the kitchen or maybe the outside dunny, and Endless Road ending the album with a direct throwback to a John Hammond roadhouse spare room recording in the mid ‘30s.
But it can be charged – literally, with electric guitars; metaphorically, with its tone – and carry a heavy emotional weight even at its simplest or quietest moments. Then it can take those elements and suggest far shakier ground, as Olsen does in Only With You.
This is in theory a stopgap, or maybe even a throwaway album, for completists and diehards. It’s anything but though. Phases will comfortably sit as a first tier record to be savoured.