Over a year after the runaway, breakthrough success of ‘My Woman’ established Angel Olsen as one of music’s brightest young storytellers and proof that she could turn her hand to more than just heartfelt folk, the Missouri-born singer-songwriter returns with her latest collection of songs. A record filled with obscurities and rarities, as well as some previously heard material, delicately and lovingly put together to show off Olsen’s many facets; from the soft folk daydream of ‘All Right Now’ (a bonus track from the deluxe edition of ‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’) to the ‘60s influenced indie rock of ‘Sweet Dreams’ (released as a single in 2013).
Effectively acting as a mixtape of all the bits that have floated around the edges of Olsen’s main studio albums, ‘Phases’ begins with the marching tempo of ‘Fly On Your Wall’, a song taken from the Bandcamp-only Anti-Trump fundraiser earlier this year before launching into the record’s best track, ‘Special’, a brand new song lifted from the recordings of ‘My Woman’. A towering, seven-minute slow burn that builds from a simple isolated four chord electric guitar backing whilst accentuating Olsen’s arresting croon and eye for lyricism. “I want to be special,” she exalts to a cascading garage rock backdrop that has more than a hint of late ‘60s Rolling Stones to it.
Her cover of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Tougher Than The Rest’ is a standout on the record. Effortless yet dripping with emotion, as Olsen slows the pace right down to extract the song’s heartbreakingly earnest core. Never-before-released, home-recorded demos ‘Sans’ and ‘How Many Disasters’ also convey a certain claustrophobia, with ‘Sans’ in particular harnessing a piercing lo-fi recording that cuts Olsen as a lonesome and fragile voice grappling with her emotions.
There is a stringent melancholic vein that runs through the heart of Olsen’s songwriting, something seen near the records end in the form of ‘May As Well’ and ‘Endless Road’. Both intensely heartfelt, emotive ballads reminiscent of the early '60s folk scene and troubadours of the Joan Baez ilk. “In all of my dreams we are husband and wife, I’ll never forget you all of my life,” she sings on the former.
The already initiated will be sure to lap up ‘Phases’ as an immersive, exploratory journey through the back-catalogue of a unique song-writer, however for first-time listeners the distinctly compilation nature of the record could prove disorientating and less rewarding a listen than any of Olsen’s singular, more complete albums. But that’s generally the case in any rarities album.
For fans of Olsen's work this is a treasure trove of lesser known recordings that capture the artist in a period in which her sound was ever-evolving and progressing. From the recorded-in-a-cupboard-style folk balladry that littered her earlier work to the tighter electric sound she went on to develop, the aptly-titled ‘Phases’ charts the only just beginning career of an intelligent, blossoming young songwriter. To use a video game analogy: ‘Phases’ represents the downloadable content to come back to once you’ve already completed the main storyline.
Words: Rory Marcham
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