Songs of womanhood

Angel Olsen explores "the complicated mess of being a woman" in her fourth record, My Woman.
Angel Olsen explores "the complicated mess of being a woman" in her fourth record, My Woman.PHOTO: JAGJAGUWAR

Angel Olsen may sing like a seraph, but never ever take her for granted. On her fourth record, My Woman, the St Louis, Missouri-born singer-songwriter explores "the complicated mess of being a woman" as she has said in a recent interview.

Is she somebody else's woman or asserting her own strong, independent self? That's the subtext suggested by the album title and the listener is never completely at ease even if the gorgeous riffs raise you up and make you feel invincible.

Long associated with folk iconoclast Bonnie "Prince" Billy, she's stepped out on her own with a record of testament. It's a woman's record, alright - brandishing the unapologetic verve of Fiona Apple, but also the mix of steeliness and melancholy of another compatriot Sharon Van Etten - while sounding like no one else.

Yet, it's also a record about humanity, about self-confidence, about the back-breaking cycle of work. "Still got to wake up and be someone," she declaims in the opening track, Intern, her voice an alluring mix of grit and vulnerability, shimmying like a female Roy Orbison on the verge of a precipice.

It's also about love, about feeling like a, well, novice, over and over again. The music is twinky-dreamy, bouyed by synths, while she gasps, almost airlessly, at the end: "Falling in love and I swear it's the last time."

  • INDIE FOLK / ROCK

  • MY WOMAN

    Angel Olsen

    Jagjaguwar

    4/5 stars

The track is followed by a passive-aggressive cycle of hurt, infatuation, bliss and defiance. On the torch song Never Be Mine, she struts and keens at the same time, repeating the song title, driven by hope and risk of disappointment. There's an airy vibe of Brazilian tropicalia in the air, shot through by nostalgia. Is this all a dream?

The longing is replaced by action, as she commands, "Hold me kiss me/Hold me tight" in Shut Up Kiss Me, a drama-mama heart-thumper spiked by spry guitar riffs, as she walks the tight rope between sangfroid majesty and anxiety attack.

The febrile tension is released in the second half of the album as Olsen ostensibly unwinds. Those Were The Days is a gauzy, late-night ballad, as she pulls you into the blues. The jazzy vibes are deceptive, as she coolly chastises: "Will you never know the same love that I've known?"

Woman, too, trades in the same penumbra between knowing and unknowing. "You can leave now if you want to/I'll still be around," she declares, stretching out her vowels against soft riffs and barely there percussion.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2016, with the headline 'Songs of womanhood'. Print Edition | Subscribe