No one writes about sadness, in more layers, and with just a tinge of optimism, like Angel Olsen does. Whether it’s the heartland-ish flavor of her 2016 breakthrough, My Woman, or the outright symphonic All Mirrors from 2019, she’s been able to bend any sound to fit her moody exploration of her world. While the Asheville-based Olsen has always had a toe or two in the Americana world, her new album, Big Time, pushes through the dancehall doors, and if you’re able to squint your ears just right, you might just find it to be the best country album of the year.
The sadness on Big Time comes from just the place you’d expect – relationship trauma – and the beginning of the record deals with that, but from a place where she’s ready to say goodbye. The first track (and lead single), “All the Good Times” busts out the lap steel (courtesy of co-producer Jonathan Wilson) as Olsen picks up the best pieces of a busted relationship – “I’ll be long gone, thanks for the songs” – to keep with her on her path forward. The title cut, penned with Olsen’s partner, writer Adele Thibodeaux, is a dusty desert waltz paced by Spencer Cullum’s pedal steel (Cullum, Wilson and several other players also appeared on Erin Rae’s Lighten Up, another of 2022’s best records). Lyrically, Olsen gives us someone who’s not quite ready to dive into the next big thing – “Staying up all night out by the fire/Singing your song now you know I’m a crier” – but regaining touch with her own vulnerability.
The sadness and grief on Big Time goes beyond dating woes – Olsen lost both of her parents within weeks of each other, and it happened shortly after coming out to them and introducing them to her partner. “This is How it Works” pairs Cullum’s steel with an even older sound – harpsichord and clavichord from Drew Erickson – to match Olsen’s reverie on the shifting nature of grief – “I’m so tired of saying I’m tired/It’s a hard time again.” And “Go Home” is an Olsen specialty – it starts with a soft numbness of percussion, bass and piano before building and crashing into its own grief – “We watched it all burn down and did nothing/Why does it come to this to mean something” – before recovering, if just a bit – “Forget the old dream/I got a new thing.”
The optimism Olsen lived the last few days she had with her parents – coming out and living true – resurfaces toward the end of Big Time. “Through The Fires,” with its lush strings and haunting vocals, has the singer resetting her definition of happiness – “I made up my mind/To learn to release the dreams that had died.” And album wrapper “Chasing the Sun” finds Olsen temporarily lost in the moment, despite the pain – “Everyone’s wondered where I’ve gone/Having too much fun doing nothing.” The song itself alternates between being fragile and downright torchy, reflecting the fits and starts we all feel when trying to push through the fog of loss and grief. Olsen’s just able to write songs about that messy process better than, well, just about anyone.
Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Go Home” – Riding that big ol’ wave of sorrow is going to be an amazing communal experience. Bonus – Olsen will be joining Sharon Van Etten and Julien Baker on The Wild Hearts Tour this summer. https://thewildheartstour.com/
Big Time was produced by Johnathan Wilson and Angel Olsen, mixed by Wilson, engineered by Grant Milliken and mastered by Adam Ayan. All songs were written by Olsen, with Beau Thibodeaux co-writing “Big Time.” Additional musicians on the album include Wilson (drums, percussion, lap steel, guitars, mellotron, zither, double bass, synth bass, mandolin, harmonium), Milliken (vibraphone), Emily Elhaj (bass, fuzz guitar), Jake Blanton (guitars, concert bells, electric sitar), Drew Erickson (piano, organ, Wurlitzer, Solina, harpsichord, sub bass, clavichord), Dan Higgins (flute, saxophones), Wayne Bergeron (trumpet), Spencer Cullum (pedal steel), Gus Seyffert (guitar), Andrew Bullbrook (violin), Wynton Grant (violin), Zach Dellinger (viola), Jacob Braun (cello) and Steve Holtman (trombones).
Go here to order Big Time (out June 3): https://www.hellomerch.com/collections/angel-olsen?ffm=FFM_9adaaaee3a4872f38851644b847890e3
Check out all of Olsen’s tour dates on her website: https://angelolsen.com/