After appearing on a pair of reverb-soaked and long sold-out cassettes, Angel Olsen made a proper full-length debut in 2012 with Half Way Home. Simple, confident, clear, and cohesive, it’s an instant classic. The album is an arresting record in the tradition of cult ’70s folk artists like Linda Perhacs—though Olsen’s aesthetic is far closer to the restrained, minimal intensity of Nico or Bridget St. John than the wild whimsy of Sandy Denny or Buffy Saint-Marie.
There’s a focus and intensity that would be frightening if it weren’t leavened by Olsen’s achingly gorgeous voice, which is so full of quavering detail and texture that it’s hard to stop listening to. This is one of those albums that moves in with you, that you find permanently occupying your turntable or car stereo.
Ultimately, the ’70s singer-songwriter that Half Way Home mostly brings to mind is Leonard Cohen (particularly his first four albums). Olsen has the same introspective intensity, the same talent for balancing bleak darkness and gentle vulnerability, and the same knack for breaking your heart with a line or two, whether she’s singing about being disoriented and overwhelmed by romantic love as in “Acrobat” or about the death of a parent in “Lonely Universe.”
She even manages Cohen’s brand of sly humor in “Miranda.” “Don’t stand too close to me, darling/keep your hands where I can see/don’t you know you’re wanted in 50 states/I love you dear, but it’s not up to me.” The album seems deceptively austere at first, but its few embellishments stand out starkly and are perfectly balanced against the otherwise minimal presentation of Olsen’s voice and guitar.
Her forthcoming album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness (due February 18 on Jagjaguwar), is a distinct stylistic departure. Instead of simple acoustic guitar arrangements, Olsen is backed by a full rock band. It’s always something of a risk when a musician like this “goes electric.” Too often the delicacy of the songs is covered up by the overbearingly loud music, or the quality of the writing gets dumbed down in an attempt to meet the format. Thankfully, that’s not the case here. The arrangements are still simple ones; it’s largely three-chord garage rock, as well-structured and perfectly recorded as her first record, and though Olsen’s songwriting style has shifted slightly, it brings out new strengths in her work.
“Forgiven/Forgotten,” the album’s second track, is the instant hit and an early contender for best rock song of the year. It’s exactly two minutes long, but it accomplishes a great deal in that time. It seems deceptively simple at first, beginning with an alt-rock 101 fuzzy guitar progression as Olsen’s distorted voice sings “All is forgotten/always you are forgiven.” It builds quickly but confidently, avoiding any flashy climaxes or showy moves, while gathering intensity. By the time she’s harmonizing with herself, agonizing: “Will you ever forgive me/a thousand time through/for loving you,” the song is already over and is already your new favorite.
Elsewhere on the record, the band’s slower material is fleshed out with twangy, tremolo guitar, sad piano chords, and driving rhythms that evoke a smoky southern bar at the end of a rainy weeknight. Slow-burners like “White Fire” or “Iota,” while cut from the same cloth, wouldn’t have fit comfortably on the first record, and the uptempo tracks employ a far more economical approach to songwriting.
Whereas Half Way Home applies Olsen’s considerable talents to evoking delicate intimacy, Burn Your Fire applies the same skills to driving, forceful, mid-tempo mini-anthems. The first album was one to sip tea to, this is one to cry in your whiskey over. Her ability to switch effortlessly from one style to the next gives hope that she might be an artist capable of many more masterpieces.
Olsen’s videos are also worth mentioning. Her ongoing collaboration with filmmaker Zia Anger has resulted in a half-dozen videos, all of which are memorable. Each was shot on 16mm film with the warmth of simple, handmade work, and they’re confidently composed—a perfect match for the music.
Olsen performs in a kind of deadpan, minimalist vamp through a gaudy set in “Hi-Five.” In “Tiniest Seed” she harmonizes with herself in stark black and white double and triple exposure, while in “Sweet Dreams” the film stock is cross-processed, blurry, and blossoms into the kind of lush, neon distortions that are impossible to replicate with digital media.
The video collaboration suggests an attention to detail and cautious choices that have marked Olsen’s career thus far. Though Olsen has reportedly written songs throughout her whole life, she’s only recently became serious about releasing them. She’s spoken of not wanting to feel rushed in her career, and has remained somewhat guarded about her success thus far (though she’s also popped up in unlikely collaborations with Will Oldham and Joan of Arc’s Tim Kinsella)—another rarity in the age of bands that are desperate for attention.
Olsen’s career, like her music, is careful and deliberate. When matched with her considerable talent, the results are devastatingly good.
Angel Olsen begins her U.S. tour at the Southern Café and Music Hall on February 18. Old Calf opens.