Angel Olsen has the unique ability to sound familiar while also resisting direct comparisons. As her arrangements have expanded in scope—where they were once hauntingly quiet folk, they are now bolder, brassier, and louder—she at times recalls varied artists such as Steve Nicks, Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers, and Patsy Cline. The one commonality amongst these musicians? An unmistakable voice.
You don’t need to be in the midst of a budding romance to enjoy Olsen’s music, but Phases, like 2016’s terrific My Woman, mixes well with a first, second, or third date. Passionate, and kissed with a hint of hopeless romanticism, Olsen’s strongest writing contains just enough bite and defiance to convey intimacy at arm’s length.
A collection of outtakes, demos, and B-sides, Phases lacks the start-to-finish refinement of My Woman. Structurally and sonically, few songs possess a home-recorded feel while others get a bit rough around the edges. Yet all of the originals seek to illuminate the very real emotions surrounding love and longing in a hectic world. In turn, the material wouldn’t be out of place on Joe Swanberg’s “Easy,” a Netflix series about adults navigating the difficult terrain of growing up—and doing so with a polished albeit improvised feel.
Phases encompasses the past seven years of Olsen’s career, a wide-ranging sweep of a fast-evolving artist. Any of her albums, even one filled with odds and ends and covers—here, for instance, she distills Bruce Springsteen’s sturdy ballad “Tougher Than the Rest” into a haunting plea—always feels like a gift from another era. Consider Olsen’s catalog a time capsule, harkening back to a period when much of pop music’s power centered around sharp guitar playing and a stunning voice.
And Phases serves as a primer for just how versatile such a voice can be—provocative and yearning amid the seven minutes of scorched guitar on “Special,” and fragile and reassuring on the hymn-like “All Right Now.” By extension, the homespun, low-fi tone of “Sans” recalls her early work on 2012’s Half Way Home, while the expansive guitar atmospheres and 1940s-style harmonies of “Only with You” bring to mind 2014’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness. “Fly on the Wall,” initially recorded for My Woman, offers a snapshot of an existential crisis—a mind full of regrets yet also wanting to disappear into itself. The incessantly strummed guitar and march-like rhythm gradually pick up the pace as Olsen’s sun-scorched voice shifts into a bright soprano.
For a more cohesive listen, Olsen newbies should first investigate My Woman. There’s nothing on this set as striking as, say, that album’s ferocious “Shut Up Kiss Me.” The aforementioned “Special” comes close, as it uses a guitar to create a symphony of echoes, layers, and hypnotic rises. And that says nothing of how an opening line such as “Want to be special, something like your mother” can leave one contemplating the relationship dynamic. All told, Phases acts as more a snapshot of where Olsen has been rather than where she’s heading next. But as “California” makes clear, this is a fine place to visit.
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