The follow-up to 2016’s My Woman takes Angel Olsen in a surprisingly new direction. The polished, reverb-heavy finish that gave Olsen’s My Woman such gravitas is (almost shockingly) entirely missing from Phases. In its stead, Olsen turns to a stripped-down, acoustic delivery.
Electronic influences aren’t missing from the record entirely. In fact, the bluesy “Special,” with its slow, hazy buildup, is one of the more compelling tracks on the record. But the instances where Olsen shines most on Phases are reserved to tracks wherein she is at her most withdrawn.
“Only With You” unfolds slowly over a muted blues riff akin to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and for the simplicity of its lyrics delivers a more vulnerable performance than was apparent on My Woman. Olsen’s turn to folk conventions pay off tenfold on “All Right Now.” While most of the tracks on Phases lack the energy of her earlier releases, Olsen makes up for the minimalist production with what is probably the most committed, emotionally-vulnerable vocal performance of her career to date.
If her delivery wasn’t as compelling, Phases would be entirely too self-indulgent to be palatable. As it stands, however, Olsen wins the listener over, time and time again. Case in point: “Sweet Dreams” gives us every indication of being the kind of half-hearted Jefferson Airplane knock-off that bands with female vocalists will oftentimes attempt.
The moment she starts singing, Olsen proves us wrong. Not only is the track a refreshingly sober take on the “confession of love through heartache” trope, it’s also belligerent in the way Hendrix was belligerent: Olsen knows damn well she’s got it down — why be humble about it?
The soft-spoken acoustic ballad “California” puts every acoustic singer-songwriter this side of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to shame. Sure, there’s a much more pronounced country twang in “California” than Art and Paul ever exhibited, but Olsen’s delivery is immediately moving. Like most of the tracks on Phases, “California” is stripped-down and solely acoustic, which, instead of limiting Olsen, gives her the opportunity to highlight her vocals directly. (An opportunity she doesn’t fail to exploit to its fullest again and again on this record.)
The short-but-sweet “For You” will (take my word for it) become one of those ubiquitous independent-movie soundtrack staples that catapult artists into relative fame based on one performance. (Luckily for potential viewers, Olsen’s no one-hit-wonder.)
Here’s the thing, none of these songs will get syndicated radio airtime. (None of them are upbeat pop carbon-copies.) The real pity in this is that songs like “May as Well” outdo every major commercial love song. Every single one is rendered irrelevant by Olsen’s crooning: “I’ll never forget you all of my life.”
2016’s My Woman had one lacklustre track on it: “Sister” — a track which didn’t fail by any standard, it just paled slightly in comparison to the other nine on the record.
Phases avoids this by getting it right every time.
I’m not saying there are no bad songs on Phases. I’m saying each song commands such rapt attention, so violently engenders tenderness, that no one track surpasses another.