Big Time (Jagjaguwar/Inertia)
Although I’ve had plenty of time with this record, I’m still not entirely certain why this record is like this record. Which isn’t a way of saying I don’t like it, because overall, I do. But it does operate in odd territories. And by odd, I mean Angel Olsen making a country album for one.
Though, to be strictly true, only the majority of the album is country songs of a quiet sort: languid and sometimes forlorn, airy and often pierced with shards of filtered light, pedal steel and piano. The rest of the songs might reasonably be called variations of torch songs: intense and dramatic, projected into high-ceilinged rooms for a listener, offering yawning chasms in its narrators.
But yes, Olsen, whose last album, 2019’s All Mirrors was a sometimes-glistening pop experience, and whose earlier albums trafficked in lo-fi indie and then expansive ‘70s pop/rock, this year presents herself in the kind of territory where vulnerabilities are as unprotected as her voice, and everyone’s wearing a hat.
In the weeping-into-my-beer This Is How It Works, the jukebox is working its way back around from heartache to heartbreak (the only options on it), via pedal steel variations, and no one in the room wants to look at each other. During Ghost On, the slowly turning mirror ball is playing across long faces and barely moving lips, the drums barely being tapped, the organ almost subliminal, the guitar solo more a prod. And while Big Time’s piano and guitar exchange notes on the best chance for an early opener, the desultory rhythm is already thinking of an afternoon sleep.
By the time we’re hearing them these don’t shock as All The Good Times has already opened the album with Olsen sounding like a subdued Emmylou Harris pitched between a country band which normally does the Sunday evening sets and a guest brass section blown in from Chicago where every member has a headache they keep hoping will slide away if no one shouts.
It's a gentle world this country milieu, and it fits Olsen like a worn-in pair of boots. Gentle doesn’t stretch though to the remaining tracks. While the songs which veer from the country path remain in the semi-darkness, they play in settings with a less forgiving mood.
In the tightening noose of Right Now, for example, you start picturing Olsen overlooking from the corner stage an over-lit small dancefloor in an under-lit nondescript bar where slowly moving couples, a few drinks too many already taken, are leaning on rather than into each other and just trying not to think about going home. Alone or with someone – both seem unappealing.
Go Home throbs with hurt, the strict military beat unchanged but the build-up of instruments piling up until it threatens cacophony, only to fall back on to hurt and abandonment, immediately followed by the swirling, light delirium of and out of focus Julee Cruise moment in Through The Fires.
I am not wholly convinced by them though, uncertain about the way drama seems less natural within them. While they are in some ways more in keeping with elements of her earlier work than the country excursions, these tracks also show the strain more. And maybe they make the country feel less steady by association.
Maybe the solution – of sorts – comes in the final track, Chasing The Sun, which feels like it is making its way between both ends of the album’s styles: an elegant nightclub tempo and hushed voice in the verses, piano and string alternating between sorrow and grace. Sad eyed cowgirls get the blues?
In this song the room is emptying out at the end of the night we’ve been experiencing in the previous tracks, each time the door swings open a burst of sun flicks eyeballs in a manner that says maybe you should stay a bit longer. Outside can wait.
SPOTIFY: Listen to Angel Olsen – Big Time
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