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31 May 2022

Angel Olsen’s Big Time is a sensitive record about grief, loss and coming out

On her new album the 35-year-old turns to country music to come to terms with her sexuality and the death of her parents.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

When Angel Olsen sat atop the counter to play a very intimate live show at the London record shop Rough Trade West in mid May, she was worried about being heard at the back. The room was tiny – just 40 people stood between the racks of records to watch her. While her electric guitar was plugged in, Olsen wasn’t singing into a microphone and the new songs she was playing sit really low in her range, she explained, which makes it difficult for her to project.

So much of the emotional power of the Missouri-born songwriter’s previous work – since 2010 she has released five studio records, two compilations and four EPs – was held in her soaring vocals. In “High & Wild”, a fervorous song from her break-out album Burn Your Fire For No Witness (2014), she inhabits all corners of her range – speak-talking the lower notes and propelling her voice forward with verve for the higher ones. More recently she has found a particular allure in playing with expectations. On “Too Easy”, from 2019’s All Mirrors, she sings whisper-like in her upper register. “I’m not alone, I’m not/The real truth of it all/Is that I haven’t lost,” she sings, her voice hushed.

On Big Time, her sixth record, Olsen sings comparatively low. The album feels somehow truer and more grounded than the often performative splendour of her previous music, though the story behind it helps too. In 2021 Olsen, 35, came out as gay publicly and to her adoptive parents (she was adopted at the age of three). Not long after, her parents died, just two months apart. It was a few weeks after her mother’s funeral, without having had time to rehearse with her band, that Olsen began recording at a studio in California with the producer Jonathan Wilson (who has also worked with Father John Misty and Conor Oberst). The resultant record is a dual reckoning with grief and with self-actualisation.

More than any of Olsen’s previous releases – which have typically been considered “alt-rock” or “indie”, maybe “folk” – this is a country record. A subtle lap steel guitar licks at the edges of “All the Good Times”, the gentle album opener that acts as an overture. At first Olsen sounds world-weary, but once the brass section kicks in, she is resolute. She knows she is onto better things. “I’ll be long gone, thanks for the songs/Guess it’s time to wake up from the trip we’ve been on,” she sings, ready to rollick. On Big Time Olsen will come to assess previous relationships and the hurt they caused her, but it is empowering to hear that learning to understand her own sexuality has instilled in her, above all, a fortitude to carry on.

Olsen’s vocal sensitivity is all over this record. On “Dream Thing”, atop pedal steel, zither and Wurlitzer, her voice is goosebump-inducing in its tenderness – exposed yet controlled. On “Go Home” her low vocal melody ascends to a higher, grander melodrama, her natural nasal tone remaining brilliantly intact. “I’m dancing, baby, but I feel like dying,” she sings as the strings swirl violently around her. Even more damning is the longing in her voice as she expresses her truest, simplest desire: “I wanna go home/Go back to small things.” It is some of the most affecting music she has ever recorded.

Grief can leave a person feeling internally rearranged. Coming out is more typically understood as an act of self-affirmation – so long as you have a network of support behind you. On Big Time, it is clear that together these events have altered something in Olsen’s core, something she’s still trying to work out. “I feel like someone else but I’m still trying,” she sings. On “Ghost On”, a heavenly rock ballad, she even asks for guidance: “Tell me how I should feel.”

Despite this Olsen is determined to hold on to the parts of herself of which she is sure, however few they may be. On “Right Now”, a declaration of how she will embrace new love, she sings with insistence: “I’m telling you right now/If we’re apart or here together/I need to be myself/I won’t live another lie.” Drums, bass, organ and electric guitars wrestle with Olsen’s vocal line and her voice remains defiant.

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