Unmistakable voice of female lo-fi rock

Angel Olsen’s slated Jefferson performance is sure to wow


Angel Olsen will perform at the Jefferson Tuesday, Nov. 28.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

“Not everything I do is about my struggle as a woman. It just so happens to be something I understand a little bit, because I didn’t have any other option.”

Angel Olsen is the sort of musician impossible to sum up in a few sentences, or even in a few paragraphs — and the quote above, attributed to Olsen herself, speaks to that complexity. In a time when artists and their work are being increasingly commodified and pigeon-holed, reduced to a handful of essential tagwords, it is people like Olsen who defiantly refuse to submit to labels.

Just look at her discography for proof. Over the course of three full-length albums and several other side projects, most recently the odds-and-ends compilation “Phases,” Olsen has experimented with sound, style and theme — resulting in an eclectic but mesmerizing collection of music. 

This is not to say that Olsen’s music is devoid of any common threads. Love shows up most often, but in countless forms. 2012’s “Half Way Home” is composed of mysterious, ultimately sweet warblings about love lost and found, along with the wider concept of being lost. Follow-up “Burn Your Fire for No Witness” takes a darker route, utilizing angrier guitars and generally more bitter lyrics about relationships turned sour. 2016’s “MY WOMAN,” Olsen’s most impressive work to date, combines the two styles for the better, alternating between slow-building ballads and explosive rock, sweetly crooned sentiments and fierce challenges to her lovers and accusations as to their intentions.

The only thing easy to place about Olsen is her voice. Listen to just one song, and the vibrating, soaring sound of Olsen singing is immediately secured in one’s mind as incredibly, beautifully unique. With their impressive range and strange, tremulous qualities, her vocals almost sound more suited for an opera. But, placed in an indie-rock setting, they haunt the instrumental music and give a more profound meaning to the already complex lyrics. 

If Olsen’s singing voice is so arresting on a recording, what is a live experience of some of her music like? The reviews are myriad, and almost purely positive — she’s been described as “ferocious,” “irresistible,” “marvellously watchable.” All these adjectives boil down to what should already be assumed by an Olsen fan — written words will never do such an artist justice. The only way to truly experience Olsen is to see and hear Olsen in the flesh.

That being said, local fans are in luck if they’ve yet to see Olsen perform live. The Jefferson Theater will host the musician Tuesday, Nov. 28, along with folk-rock singer and University graduate Ned Oldham.

If this article were an interview with Olsen, the recently obligatory “Considering the events of Aug. 11 and 12 …” question would inevitably be asked. Artists who live or perform in Charlottesville have, in the past few months, been forced to recontextualize or rethink their art in terms of political turmoil that the city represents to the rest of the country. Though this is maybe a little unfair, both to the artists and the city itself, which cannot be reduced to unfortunate acts of terrorism, Olsen has plenty to say on the subject of political activism.

“People pick and choose who they want to be accepting of,” Olsen said in a recent interview. This statement, though quoted before the events of the summer, are impressively applicable. She went on to say that “human nature is to conquer and separate,” an unfortunate truth which is also a condensation of the goals of the alt-right.

But Olsen sees hope for the future. “This is a different time,” Olsen said in the same interview. “People are speaking out. They’re angry. Millennials … are speaking out about the things that they see.”

So where does Olsen’s music fit into all this political discussion? When considering the question of whether her work addresses political problems or serves as an escape from them, many listeners would likely choose the latter, but her work on “MY WOMAN” is not so easily dismissed. Not only does it explore different facets of love and relationships, it also tackles a related issue — that of womanhood.

Consider these lyrics, taken from “MY WOMAN” track “Heart Shaped Face” — “Was it me you were thinking of? / All the time when you thought of me / Or was it your mother? / Or was it your shelter? / Or was it another / With a heart shaped face?”

Or this simple, powerful line from penultimate track “Woman” — “I dare you to understand / What makes me a woman.”

Whether Olsen is commenting on throwaway society and the presumed female roles within it or just acknowledging the complexity of womanhood itself, her more recent songs contain many elements worth interpreting.

As her performance falls on the last full week of classes for the semester, it would be both tempting and understandable to skip it for the sake of grades or mental health. But if time can be found for Angel Olsen, the few hours spent with her in the Jefferson promise to be time well spent.

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