Album Review: Angel Olsen, ‘Big Time’

    Can you think of a more fitting title for the new Angel Olsen album than Big Time? You don’t even need to know what it sounds like – considering how long it’s been since her last proper LP, the lavishly arranged and tempestuous All Mirrors, should be enough to put things in perspective. (It’s been less than three years, but if it feels like forever, that only makes it more apt – few songwriters evoke the blurriness of time like Olsen.) Her subsequent releases may be seen as slightly counterintuitive, but far from a rejection of what she attempted with her most epic statement yet: 2020’s Whole New Mess, a companion to All Mirrors, presented its songs in their original form, calling back to her 2012 EP Strange Cacti almost as a reminder that, even when she favours a more spare presentation, unresolved feelings sound no less big; if anything, the stark intimacy unveils their devastating messiness. In Olsen’s music, intensity isn’t a matter of scale or production value – if she’s singing about how “all the weight of all the world came rushing through,” you’re going to feel exactly what that means.

    After such an emotionally taxing project, though, you wouldn’t blame Olsen for trying something different, and last year’s Aisles EP was such a straightforward collection of ‘80s covers that it bordered on frivolous and deliberately inessential. There’s barely a trace of it on Big Time, which foregoes the dark synth-pop and orchestral elegance that made  All Mirrors soar, hewing closer to alt-country with organic instrumentation that matches the tenderness and warmth of expression its songs zero in on. Longtime fans won’t find these qualities surprising, but the simplicity and directness that often marks Big Time make it feel like a new chapter. Far from a nod to Olsen’s growing influence, the title is taken from a track she co-wrote with her partner: “I’m loving you big time,” she sings with a breezy confidence that radiates throughout the album. Even as she reflects on the dissolution of a relationship on the bright opener ‘All the Good Times’, she seems to be opening up a well of possibility.

    The soft glow that illuminates Big Time might seem strange for an album that chronicles such a tumultuous period in Olsen’s life, even after the relaxed vibe of Aisles. Though she came out publicly last April, Olsen hadn’t yet declared her queerness to her parents, and shortly after she did, lost both of them in quick succession. Three weeks after her mother’s funeral, she was in the studio with co-producer Jonathan Wilson recording her new LP. ‘This Is How It Works’ and ‘Chasing the Sun’ are the only two tracks written after her parents passed, and the former finds the singer at her most vulnerable; but she’s self-aware, too, acknowledging the perceived burden of making her grief known: “I’m so tired of telling you/ It’s a hard time again.” She might as well be addressing her audience.

    As a whole, however, Big Time is not only refreshingly approachable, but as compellingly layered as you would expect an Angel Olsen record to be. No hard time is ever really like the last. “I’m moving everything around/ I won’t get attached to the way that it was,” she promises herself this time. Naturally, dreams of the past still haunt the darker corners of the album: “The past is with us it plays a part/ How can we change it? How do we start?” she ponders on ‘Ghost On’, while on ‘Go Home’, she’s a ghost “living those old scenes.” It’s often the subtleties in her delivery that give her words a visceral power; when she repeats “I was looking at old you” on ‘Dream Thing’, old you feels more like elusive stare than the end of a sentence. It’s clear that Olsen greets those old ghosts from a place of acceptance, determined, as she ultimately sings on the beguiling ‘Through the Fires’, “To remember the ghost/ Who exists in the past/ But be freed from the longing/ For one moment to last.”

    The album doesn’t exactly share All Mirrors’ grand vision, nor is it as cohesive or revelatory as My Woman. But like its title, Big Time is multifaceted; and like every Angel Olsen album, it is complex and full of contradictions. Every decision feels intuitive, and with the vast experiences it attempts to examine, the results can feel incongruous, but never dishonest or forced. The towering expanse of ‘Go Home’ doesn’t come off as a retread of her older material but rather contrasts, and in effect magnifies, the simple longing that burns at its core: “I wanna go home/ Go back to small things.” More than ever, Olsen yearns for the mundane, for genuine human connection, yet her music is no less sweeping in its impact.

    What stands out to me, somewhat oddly, as Big Time’s most resonant offering is ‘All the Flowers’, a Vashti Bunyan-esque song whose melody Olsen came up with while sunbathing one day. Though the shortest track on the album, that melody sounds timeless – the song itself reflects on the hours spent trying “To be somebody/ To be alive/ And with another,” a sentiment that echoes My Woman’s ‘Intern’. Both songs recognize, from different vantage points, that the effort can be futile. Neither reaches a staggering climax. But while ‘Intern’ swells with aching desperation, ‘All the Flowers’ lets the light shine through before it inevitably fades away. For a fleeting moment, the dream is as real as ever – small and fragile yet all-encompassing. It may not last, but it lingers no matter where you are. Like the love that blossoms on Big Time, you couldn’t imagine it any other way.

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