On first listen, Angel Olsen’s new album sounds like a dramatic departure from her past work. The North Carolina singer-songwriter swaps plenty of past sounds for something that sounds entirely new on My Woman. First, there’s the shift from country-tinged folk to ’60s rock. Then comes the lean off of lyric-heavy songs. There’s the embrace of her backing band, too, a move from the role of a singer-songwriter to a full-on bandleader. Above all else, Olsen’s biggest change comes in the form of her tone. For the first time in what feels like her entire career, her words slip out of her mouth without a frown, without a sigh, without a lonely gaze into the distance. Instead, she’s grinning — and it’s a change brought about with undeniable strength.
My Woman is Angel Olsen’s reclaimed happiness. The guitar solos of “Sister” and “Woman” stretch like yawning arms. “Not Gonna Kill You” stomps with motivation. Even the manic relationship putty of “Shut Up Kiss Me,” a song detailing the puppy-eyed wants of a lover strung through hardships, flaunts a smirk. Olsen is well aware of each angle from which she sings. It’s the way she tells these stories that strips them of their previously assumed autobiographical nature and, in turn, allows listeners to stock them on their own bookshelves, a trade-off from her haunting, harrowed work from years past.
Happiness like Olsen’s can come as a shock when looking at the depressed tone of Strange Cacti or Half Way Home. It’s startling, a shift that slick. Because the truth of the matter is that reclaiming happiness is brave. It’s an act that takes more guts than its reward suggests.
There’s nothing more terrifying than choosing to be joyful in a world that constantly berates you with reasons not to be, in part because happiness is falsely linked with naivete. Finding pleasure doesn’t equate to complacency. Ditching the ease of sadness isn’t the same as contentedness. It’s the decision to look at positives while still working on fixing the negatives, both in personal and national matters. Angel Olsen works this into her music, and never once does it beat you over the head.
Her happiness is subtle, an inner shine, something that allows her to mature. My Woman by no means is a record of I’s dotted with hearts or daisies behind the ear, though perhaps the latter only in the hippie stereotype the guitar tones draw to mind. It’s the type of happiness that comes from peace of mind. Olsen sounds as if she’s stopped blaming herself for heartbreak and errors alike — something we all aspire to do but fall victim to on an annual basis. It’s the blood of being human. That’s why overcoming it—or at least actively trying to outrace the punch—the way My Woman does is so remarkable.
Because, really, let’s be honest: Musicians can’t be sad forever. No matter how badly we wish they would—purely for selfish reasons, like holing up in their music when we’re in pain the way most fans cradling Burn Your Fire For No Witness do—there comes a point where they find their stride.
Perhaps that’s the most rewarding part of following a musician’s trajectory. When they finally find the goodness they deserve, their music shifts to reflect that, and it sounds bolder and fuller than ever because of it. And on the stage, they show us how it’s done, a living reminder that sadness isn’t forever. You just need to flip it off enough times to get there.
ANGEL OLSEN, ALEX CAMERON, RODRIGO AMARANTE. TUE-WED 9.20-9.21. THE SINCLAIR, 52 CHURCH ST., CAMBRIDGE. 7PM/18+/$17. SINCLAIRCAMBRIDGE.COM