It’s been an eventful few years for Angel Olsen – but she’s come out the other side in a good place, and produced one of the best albums of her impressive catalogue. On Big Time Olsen gets deep and introspective, bares her heart and soul, and taps into her country music vein – something she’s always had within her (coming from St. Louis, Missouri) but has avoided expressing directly, rather exploring myriad other styles.
Big Time is Olsen’s sixth studio LP since her 2012 debut Half Way Home. Since then she’s been prolific and ever-evolving, releasing consistent, intriguing and thematically diverse records featuring solid songwriting, all led by her incredible, dynamic voice that can range from a soft whisper to a full-blown howl. Somewhat of a musical chameleon – each album has had a different focus, sound and style, often reflected in the cover art portraits of her – from her early, acoustic, folky warbling, to her retro rocking breakthrough My Woman featuring hit single Shut Up Kiss Me, and the epic, soaring, symphonic heights of All Mirrors.
The album cover of Big Time features Angel looking her most wholesome, in shadowy sepia tone and tweed jacket, looking sideways into the distance, in front of a big ol’ country panorama with hills stretching off to the horizon. Gone are her trademark bangs, her long hair pulled back behind her ears – referenced in her very own, knowing, winking, promo poster that proclaimed “Out with the bangs, in with the twangs.” She’s a woman very much in control of her artistic vision.
Olsen was far from quiet during COVID times. Whilst dealing with cancelling tours for her acclaimed 2019 album All Mirrors (including a Perth date!), the couple of years leading up to Big Time saw Olsen release Whole New Mess (a sparse, intimate reworking of All Mirrors with a couple of new tracks), Aisles – a supercool EP of 80s covers, and single Like I Used To – her stunning collaboration with Sharon Van Etten.
If that wasn’t enough, a few months before she started recording the new album, she came out online, posting pictures of her partner with the comment “I’m gay!” She then told her parents (step-parents who raised her since she was three) and three days later her father tragically died in his sleep. Two months later, her mother died of heart failure. It was a lot to deal with, so she threw herself into the recording process, and while the bulk of the material was already written, a lot of emotion, love and grief comes through as she came to terms with her changed world. As Olsen herself stated, “I am a very different person than I was in 2020. I am irreversibly changed.”
Strangely Big Time sounds warm, laidback, self-assured and upbeat even. Olsen fronts a tight, polished band who pump out a big Americana sound. It’s an album that seems to be where she was always meant to arrive – moving further away from her early indie, introspective work, it’s perhaps her most accessible album yet.
Opener All Of The Good Times starts off effortlessly smooth, with soft drums, bass and droning mellotron as she declares “I can’t say that I’m sorry, when I don’t feel so wrong anymore.” The vibe builds with subtle horn flourishes to the climax as she sings “Thanks for the free ride, and all of the good times.” It’s an opening statement, of her processing, moving forward, with a little smile and the hint of a tear.
The title track Big Time was co-written with her partner Beau Thibodeaux and is the most swinging, pure, country tune she’s ever penned, as she sings about good coffee, sunshine, kisses and “laying in the tall grass, talking with your eyes” complete with pedal steel slide guitar. It evokes Harvest-era Neil Young and sounds like an instant classic. The simple and sweet chorus “I’m loving you big time, I’m loving you more” reference words of affection that her partner and mother would say to her.
The epic album centrepiece Right Now starts with a gentle melody, before shifting gears towards the end into a huge, sweeping, swirling, stomping beast – as she fiercely repeats “All those days are gone/ I’m telling you right now, right now.”
Closer Chasing The Sun may be the most gorgeous song she’s written yet. A heart-on-sleeve love song written for a new flame, capturing that heady feeling of excitement of meeting someone you just want to spend all your time with. Her voice is soft and breathless like a retro chanteuse. “I can’t seem to get anything done, with someone like you around/ Having too much fun/ Doing nothing.”
The album even comes with a short companion film that takes us through some dream-like sequences, including various songs, giving them more dramatic imagery and context, even featuring Thibodeaux in some scenes. Overall Big Time is a superb, complete artistic work. It’s taken a while for Angel to get here, but it seems like she’s only just getting started.