Album Review: Angel Olsen – Big Time

[Jagjaguwar; 2022]

In the last few years, Angel Olsen has been through a lot – and that’s on top of the same “a lot” that we’ve all experienced. Having accepted her sexuality, she met her partner, came out to her parents and felt like she was finally the real her. But, just as it felt like the pieces of her life and identity were falling into place, she lost both mother and father suddenly and in quick succession. She recorded Big Time just weeks after this double tragedy.

While her last proper album, 2019’s orchestrally-imbued All Mirrors, was something of a coming out party for her grand artistic ambition and scope, Big Time is the coming out party for her true personality. In order to do this, she’s stripped away the grandiosity and reverted back to the country and Americana sounds that she calls home. It’s as if all those lights and mirrors pointed at her on her previous album have cracked through the surface and revealed a tender, vulnerable core.

Big Time, then, unfolds as a series of lessons learned during this tumultuous period – although delivered almost in reverse. Opener “All The Good Times” finds her completely self-possessed and certain of who she is, no longer willing to bend or bow down to broken heartedness and confusion that has been on her back all these years. “Guess It’s time to wake up from the trip we’ve been on / So long farewell, this is the end,” she sings over twanging pedal steel and dusty organ melody, punctuated by horns blasts to emphasise the freedom. It’s easy to envision Olsen and her partner driving off into the sunset as the triumphant track plays out – “Thanks for the free ride and all of the good times!”

The title track follows, a co-write with her partner that unabashedly leans into the romance and cuteness of their coupledom. From “good morning kisses” to the anthemic proclamation “I’m loving you big time”, all stood atop glassy piano keys and bouncing drums, it’s probably the least conflicted Olsen has ever sounded – and that positivity is radiant.

But, following on from this double salvo of satisfaction, Olsen starts to take us sliding down into the pit of uncertainty she’s been living in over recent years. Expectedly, there is plenty of meditation on the nature of personal, emotional development. The ever-ready pedal steel provides the perfect tint to these country reflections, while Olsen’s rich vocal manages to convey equal parts regret and nostalgia. Everywhere she looks, she’s confronted by unresolved feelings.

While she often sings to an envisioned “you”, they could easily be addressed to her old self – and even if it is directed towards someone else, her changing attitude toward them is still a symbol of her own evolution. “I don’t know if you can take such a good thing coming to you,” she intones on “Ghost On”, which feels particularly like a self-aimed arrow. This theme of romantic uncertainty is picked up again a couple of tracks later in the mandolin-flecked “Right Now”, where she questions “Why’d you have to go and make it weird? / Saying things I think I need to hear”, and you can practically hear her backing away from the proffered intimacy. However, the song then segues into an almighty second half where there’s an array of stormy guitars, the orchestral trappings from All Mirrors return to thicken the atmosphere, and her rational mind beams through to set her on the right path: “I need you to look at me and listen / I ain’t the past coming back to haunt you / I’m talking ‘bout right now.”

This epiphany is short-lived though, as Big Time continues its steadfast march into the doldrums of Olsen’s recent experiences. It’s a tough trail to follow, but she always describes it with a beauty born of honesty. “This Is How It Works” comes as the counterpoint to the opening “All The Good Times” and “Big Time”, the singer admitting “it’s a hard time again”, that she’s “barely hanging on” and begging “tell me something good”. These admissions of sheer vulnerability are delivered with diaphanous directness, a subtle vibraphone ringing through the lonesome atmosphere as we feel her soul flickering with pain.

Olsen continues to tug us down into the gloomiest parts of her mind with “Go Home”, where she’s still just as emotionally stranded as the preceding track. This time, however, she’s not wallowing but angry, lashing out in banshee-like tone “I don’t belong here / Nobody knows me / How can I go on with all those old dreams?” It’s painful to listen to, especially as the song arises to a psychedelic and stinging finale, ghostly wails and sprinkles of saxophone wrapping around the singer until she’s nothing but a spectre.

However, out of every ending comes new beginning, and Big Time doesn’t leave us hanging. “Through The Fires” is the album’s grandstanding rebirth, a stately piano-led track where Olsen’s breathy lower register oozes out, reaching up for her new love. Romantic strings fairylight their way through the background, illuminating the path way for her to “walk through the fire of all earthly desires / and let go of the pain that obstructs you from higher.” From there, “Through The Fires” is filled with silvery melodies and Olsen’s wordless falsetto, expressing a new acceptance and understanding that is beyond words.

After all the Olsen has expressed through the record, after she’s visited every dusty corner of her sadness and excavated all of her regrets, she deserves to leave on a high – and with the closing “Chasing The Sun” she does exactly that. She takes us back to where we started, bashfully, adorably in love, and “busy doing nothing”, her honeyed whisper suggesting an isolated vista in a place nobody else can reach. In this hallowed place she’s “driving away the blues” in a gorgeous exhalation. After a series of tear-streaked missives, it feels like she’s at well-deserved peace, at last.