I didn’t end up reviewing it for this site, but Angel Olsen‘s 2016 release My Woman was breathtaking. Strong songwriting throughout, a varied array of musical styles that Olsen mastered, and great production all helped create an album that easily made it into my top 10 of 2016. I don’t think anyone expected we’d be getting a ton of new material from Olsen in 2017, so you can count me among the pleasantly surprised when she returned in September with the announcement of Phases, a rarities and B-sides collection. Now that Phases is here, Angel Olsen has pulled off something very rare: releasing an Album Of The Year candidate two years in a row.
Across nine original tracks and three covers, Olsen peels back the curtain on her writing with songs receiving very little producing, if any at all. What production that’s there is, of course, spectacular. “Fly On Your Wall” has been around since the beginning of 2017, but the jerky chord chord progression and haunting instrumental still pair with Olsen’s lyricism of disappearing into yourself to turn into someone else to create one of the most affecting tracks of the year. And of course there’s “Special,” the seven and a half minute long odyssey of heartache, yearning, and love. It’s hard to craft a song of that length that is absolutely gripping, required listening for the whole runtime, but Olsen is one of the best in music right now at achieving exactly that. “Special” is almost like a symphony, with distinct sections with their own musical themes and ideas that still connect back to a central whole.
The rest of the originals on the album are also phenomenal. Many of them are from home demos, which gives them that little bit of unpolished fuzz that makes a B-side really standout, but doesn’t detract at all from the music itself. “Sans” is fast-paced musing on the passage of time, a heady concept that Olsen makes accessible and relatable. For those that like Olsen’s more rock influenced fairings, “Sweet Dreams” pairs Olsen with musicians Emmett Kelly and Emily Elhaj to create a satisfyingly thick rock track that shares similar traits to the excellent “Shut Up Kiss Me” from My Woman. “How Many Disasters” is another demo that proves that Olsen only needs a guitar and her voice to sound spectacular. It also displays her ability to deftly write lyrics, as she cleverly reflects on the constant cruelties of being caring in an uncaring world, musing “how unfair to have a heart that’s still beating.” This can also be found in the wonderfully folky “California,” a song that’s about going to California in mindset if not in physical location.
Phases also proves that Angel Olsen can do a cover song justice. Olsen takes acid rock legend Roky Erickson’s “For You” and turns it into an even homier little tune about simple and pure love. Here is another case of the hazy quality from a demo enhancing a track on Phases, as its all the more intimate and emotional. On “Tougher Than The Rest,” Olsen strips away all the big rock ballad trappings from Bruce Springsteen’s original and hones in on the emotional vulnerability of finding love again after a broken heart heals. The album closes on “Endless Road,” a cover of a song originally from the show Bonanza about a life led constantly on the road. While the original is good, Olsen’s is now the definitive version for me. The simple fingerpicking and Olsen’s ability to convey a huge depth of emotion makes this an unparalleled cover. It’s only two minutes long, but it will absolutely destroy you in those two minutes.
There is not a single misstep on Phases. A listener can tell that each track was lovingly selected and tended to in order to create this wonderful listening experience. Phases is packed full of all the best parts of Angel Olsen’s work: emotional depth, strong writing, and smart delivery wrapped up in a flawless package. Not only is Phases some of the best music we’ve heard from Angel Olsen, it’s one of the best albums you’ll hear in 2017.