Consider the enormous pressure that must come from following up a true breakthrough. Angel Olsen’s 2014 album, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, wasn’t a debut, but it felt like it was. It was infused with the immediacy of a voice that had no previous avenue suddenly unleashed, able to express everything that had been stewing in a wounded soul. That it offered this smack of fresh perspective with an intense restrained quiet rather than a reverberating caterwaul only made it more striking. Perhaps the more impressive thing about My Woman, Olsen’s new release, is that it honors and maintains the soul of the preceding album while adding sonic textures and a different edge of propulsive to achieve a welcome distinctiveness.
Like Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Olsen’s new album comes pre-haunted. There’s an unshakable ache that gives the whole endeavor a fierce modernity, a sense that it is almost an immune system reaction to the smothering pressures of existence itself. Olsen has said the album is about “the complicated mess of being a woman,” and she emphasized the creative intent to shape its two halves into different tones. There’s a worrying suggestion of pompous concept album shenanigans to those notions, but thankfully such labored unity isn’t a characteristic of My Woman. However, it does manifest in a engrossing purity across all the tracks, a certainty that these songs are coming straight from the same trembling wounds.
The song may be coming from the same place, but they radiate out in splendid, subtle variations. “Never Be Mine” has a wistful, pining quality, and just enough classic sixties pop feel that it could be the spectral retort one of Springsteen’s Marys or Candys offered from their lonely spot of abandonment under the boardwalk, and “Shut Up Kiss Me” has a nifty, spare churn that emphasizes the urgency of the practically sputtered chorus line “Shut up kiss me hold me tight.” “Give It Up” has the sparse slow burn rock tug and shove of vintage Liz Phair, but instead of salty bravado, the song is beautifully mired in co-dependent need. “Hurts to be around you/ I can’t stand your lyin’/ Whenever you’re beside me/ A part of me is dyin’,” Olsen sings, and it is piercing.
“Sister” is a languid epic, with a deep, echoing guitar part that can make it sound a little like its auditioning for the last dance at the Twin Peaks Fall Ball, at least until the tempo picks up across the last third of the track and it becomes a modern take on Stevie Nicks’s pop witchcraft. Lolling to nearly eight minutes, “Sister” does show how Olsen can stretch individual tracks out a touch too much. In rare instances, songs can cycle into such immersive experiences that they ironically become a little distancing, inviting some mental drift. Mostly, though, Olsen’s enhanced skill at tricky dynamism counteracts this tendency. The mind can only wander so far before she reaches and yanks it back to attention.
Like practically everyone who occasionally processes their words in reaction to records, I thought Burn Your Fire For No Witness was an astounding achievement. In its immediate afterglow, I’m tempted to say My Woman resides in the realm of the improbable. Against any reasonable expectations, Olsen might have made an album that’s even better.