ALBUM REVIEW: Angel Olsen, Big Time
My biggest weakness as a critic is that when the sound of an album is uninteresting to me, I tend to stop my research dead in its tracks. Truthfully, despite it being a weakness, it’s served me well for a long time. It’s a good way to sift through the heaps of new music that comes across my desk; my personal taste is a colander and bland music is the water. However, my limited knowledge in certain genres like jazz and New Age has restricted my ability to fully enjoy certain projects. I would’ve really liked to get into an album like Yola’s Stand For Myself, but the vintage soul of that record is just not my particular style (hence why I never ended up grading it.) Getting into folk and especially country music has been perhaps the most difficult hurdle for me. In my younger days, I heard way too many Luke Bryant, Florida Georgia Line and Blake Shelton songs to take it seriously.
When I first heard Angel Olsen’s new record Big Time, my ears immediately glazed over. There was like a pavlovian response to the twangy guitars and subdued percussion that just immediately made me go “I’m not interested”. At first I wasn’t going to review it, then I nearly gave it a D+. I read over this review and I realized that despite some valid points about the songs being slower and the lyrics being a little more simplified than her older work, my words were not congruent with my true opinions. For anyone who feels a similar way about this album, I highly suggest watching the half-hour accompanying short film directed by her close friend and collaborator Kimberly Stuckwise. Stuckwise did a similar treatment for Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour Prom last year, although I’d say her work with Olsen plays out more narratively. I try my hardest not to lean into pretense when I write, but sometimes art requires context. Visually, the piece is stunning. It uses quick cutting, Twin Peaks-esque dream logic and smart lighting choices to frame this story as both abstract and simple. More importantly for this review though, it spotlights the beauty of Angel Olsen’s holistic expression.
Her recent Pitchfork profile and the voicemails from Angel’s late-mother that bookend some of these songs in the music video are brave, bold and speak volumes toward her general point-of-view as a complex artist. The years of touring three mega successful art-pop albums made time go by quickly for her, reminding me of the recent struggles that Mitski has had with her career. Her personal happiness took a backseat to her front-facing expression, and now with this new album, it’s time for catarsis, healing and honesty. While she sheds the ambitious sonic structure of All Mirrors, I find that the homier acoustic sound is more fitting for the topics at hand. Not only has this person she cared so deeply about passed away, but she also recently came out. So, she lets director Kimberly Stuckwise convey the abstraction and confusion hiding in the crevices of her experience while she just simply sings about it on the album.
Unlike the video, the music of Big Time is streamlined and raw. Whether it be the organ-led, Orbison heartbreak balladry of “All The Good Times” or the sunny reminiscence of the title track, the barrier for entry is lower than many of her past releases. Her voice is up close and personal on these songs, and the atmosphere is deeply welcoming and warm. This allows her to hold the listener by the hand and walk us all through her journey of self-love. “All The Flowers” is minimal in its arrangement, making lyrics like “I’ve been spending too much time/Searching in vain, to find/The only reason…To be alive…To be somebody” that much more impactful. The following “Right Now” is melodically gorgeous, slowly creeping under my skin with its echoed vocals and strummed guitars before bursting into louder sections. The best way to describe the music here is slowly burning, allowing her thoughts of breaking up and grief to naturally roll into the sound.
With all that being said, I still prefer the Angel of MY WOMAN. “Shut Up Kiss Me” is just a classic seared into my brain in the same way Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl” is. That record is a prerequisite to Big Time, kind of breaking the seal that leads to a more personal statement with more specific emotions. Those of you who have been following this page for a long time know that I am a bigger fan of maximalism and pop than simpler sounds and despite all my best efforts, that doesn’t change here. The caveat is that this is one of the only country music albums that I’ve ever enjoyed, period, and that’s saying a lot. Especially with its elements of coming out, I am immediately connected to Lavender Country’s self-titled debut (the only other country album I like, lol.) It’s definitely more subtle than that project, but the same sincerity and subversion of country tropes is still there. It feels like returning to your hometown honky-tonk bar and being hit with heteronormativity upon entry (which actually happens in the video.)
My overall enjoyment is stronger in the first half of the record, but late highlights like the percussive “Go Home” earn it enough points to make it a Standout Album. “Chasing The Sun” brings back some of the orchestral elements of her last record tastefully alongside a grand piano and the best vocal performance on the album. It is the righteous and dignified epilogue that this chapter of her life deserves. I can almost see memories of past romances, family BBQs and long drives on film flicker before my eyes. “Drop everything I’m doing/Nobody needs me here/I’ll go wherever you are going, I’ll be somewhere near” shows she is willing to sacrifice her storied career for love. The title of the record, Big Time, references the back-and-forth style of sharing compassion that her and her mother had (No I love you more. No I love you more. No I love you big time.). As human beings, we take small tokens of care like this for granted. When it goes away, the impact can be massive and leave a canyon of emptiness in its wake. By the looks of the music video, it seems like she has found a lover to fill the void, and I love that for her. I’m so happy that I gave this record another shot because it really surprised me with its emotional depth. W.