Written by Helena McFadzean
Angel Olsen’s Phases is a collection of un-tweaked, unreleased material, B-Sides and rarities, accumulated since the release of her first EP, Strange Cacti, in 2010. Offering some interesting insight into the musical and emotional inspirations for her past three albums, this release is the intimate record of an artist’s creative process, recording traces of her phases as she developed. The artist stated in an interview: “it’s like a window for the newer audience and a look-back through my catalogue for fans”.
To its merit, the development of the album is not straight-forward. Phases is an eclectic mix of songs encompassing both a broad emotional and musical range, but isn’t too disjointed because the songs share the ‘B-side qualities’ of intimacy, oddity and sheer experimentation. Each song is its own portrait of a different phase in Angel Olsen’s musical career; from indie-rock to acoustic folk to the magical, maximalist soundscapes of her more recent work and stands by itself amongst the others.
While risking the portrayal of Angel Olsen as indecisive, skimming different musical styles without fully adapting them, the album rather reiterates her authenticity and ability as an artist. Both Special, and Fly On Your Wall are recognisably newer songs, the former having been recorded during the My Woman process and the latter for a musical anti-Trump campaign.
Following the powerful, and upbeat album My Woman, which was released approximately one year ago, the predominantly softer and more intimate songs on Phases, reminiscent of her Burn Your Fire For No Witness era, are refreshing and comforting. They create a distinct intimacy and comfort that seems only possible for female folk artists such as herself, Cat Power, Jessica Pratt or Feist; music that touches your core profoundly, soothing you without resistance or hesitation. It seems as though Olsen is singing to us alone in the intimate setting of a living room.
As such, Phases could not have been released at a better time. It’s deep, autumnal and warming with pared-down acoustic guitar chords (with few exceptions, such as Fly On Your Wall), occasionally accompanied by a flourish of cymbals for added magic. The opening track is a powerful song as we are used to from Angel Olsen. It builds slowly and encompassing some resonating atmospheric effects as well as crashing cymbals, which offer the song a bunch of momentum.
Angel Olsen’s predominantly soft, crooning vocals enhance the intimacy and convey emotion like no other. The often crackly and lo-fi production is nostalgically reminiscent of the warmth of vinyl, crackle of old microphones and the long tradition of female folk singers.
In this vein, we see the return of May As Well. She croons, armed with a guitar alone, about the pain of unrequited love, drawn out vocals expressing the deep suffering of heartbreak. Olsen muses “In all of my dreams we are husband and wife / I’ll never forget you all of my life”, capturing the anticipation of eternal suffering through love and martyrdom that we blindly take for granted.
This willingness to suffer for love is completely flipped around with Sweet Dreams. “Every time I close my eyes, something small within me dies” Olsen angrily exclaims about sleeping alone, resonating with the heartbreak of the previous song. The song is much more upbeat and aggressively emotional, Olsen is sick of weakness. She sings assertively “I’ll love you most when I first find love in myself”.
The fifth track on the album, Sans, sees confessional, emotive vocals accompanied by the steady rhythm provided by the guitar, barely changing tone and framing Olsen’s vocal variation non-intrusively. The raw vocals are left unrefined, and if you listen carefully at the end of the song, you can hear the bustle of wrapping up. Angel Olsen shows off her way with words: “Time moves so strangely / When you’re moving all the time” is punctuated, and attention is directed towards the play of words through her vocal variation between the two uses of ‘time’.
If you are someone who typically enjoys Bonus Tracks and B-Sides much more than the main work produced by artists, this album may be precious to you. Perhaps it’s the very fact that these tracks got lost along the way – excluded from the grand narratives of previous albums because of their oddity, their refusal to serve a holistic concept – that makes them so compelling in their own right. In this vein, Phases is an absolute treasure trove for those that tend to search, as Angel Olsen evidently has.
Listen to the project below: