Album Review: Angel Olsen - Big Time
My parents’ divorce was finalized in the spring of 1995—a long time coming; it had been slowly put in motion in September or October of 1994. And it was around this time that my mother began listening to country music almost exclusively. I was between the ages of 11 and 12 then, and serving as the soundtrack in her car—an old, grey Pontiac hatchback, or from the stereo in the apartment we would eventually relocate to, were the marquee names of popular country music during that time.
And one could, if they were inclined or be moved to, make a strong case that during this time, country music was having would be called “a moment,” thanks in part to the names synonymous with the genre throughout the 1990s, like Reba McEntire or Alan Jackson, along with an artist like Garth Brooks, and Shania Twain, both of whom, given enough time, were able to transcend the genre and find success on a much larger scale.
I was a sullen teenager throughout the mid to late 1990s. As is often the case in the musical dynamic between a child and their parents, I was not particularly fond of my mother’s affinity for popular country music. But, because it was more or less inescapable, I have a surprising wealth of knowledge about the hit singles and artists responsible for them, spanning roughly seven years, until I left for college.
And I have only recently realized that those songs had become a part of me, whether I wanted them to or not.
It’s not the case with every song I would hear played over the country radio station that broadcast out of Rockford, Illinois, and it is not the case for every artist with a CD that had been filed away alphabetically into my mother’s collection during that time, but in realizing those songs had become a part of me, I’ve grown into a surprisingly earnest appreciation and fondness for some of them.
I am uncertain if this is still the case because the landscape of popular country music has changed so drastically over the last 30 years, and this might be a generalization about the way it seemingly worked through the 1990s, but based on my anecdotal observations during my pre-teen and teenage years, it appeared like artists were perhaps expected to maintain specific pace with their work to remain successful or relevant in the genre, and they did that by releasing a new album every year.
The albums, often comprised of just 10 songs, were also regularly loaded with at least four or five tunes that would be released, or promoted as singles, to drive album sales.
I have a surprising wealth of knowledge about these songs and artists, but they also occupy a nebulous space for me. Like, I have a general idea of when a song might be from, but because artists were releasing so much material, year after year, I cannot answer more specifically than that.
And because I was so young during this time, and because it is an area of a genre that it would take me well into my late 30s to finally come around on and to find a genuine appreciation for, what I didn’t have was an understanding about the lifespan of popular country singles—that, even after an artist had released subsequent albums, packed with subsequent singles to be played on the radio, those older songs remained in somewhat regular rotation.
And what I find is that I am thinking about the “Neon Moon.”
I am thinking, of course, of the song that bears that name, but also of the very notion, or feeling, that the imagery that phrase evokes.
In my notes, at the top of the page, even before I began writing down my thoughts about each of the album’s 10 tracks, I wrote, “Who the fuck is Angel Olsen?”
I had a conversation with someone recently, recorded for the podcast I host and produce, and as we were discussing the 10 songs she had selected to talk about at length for the episode, after getting into her relationship with each one—or the artist responsible for it, she would ask for my thoughts, or my opinion.
My opinion, at least in the context of the conversations recorded for the podcast, is rarely, if ever, important. As is often the case with the artists and songs guests select to discuss, many of them were artists I recognized by name, but beyond that, I had no other reference point.
My guest, eventually, asked why I had never sat down with, or had given much of my time, to one of the artists from her list—and one of the main reasons is that there are often just not enough hours in the day. I spend enough of my time looking into new artists, or bands—either to write a review, or the rare occasion that it is something I will listen to for my enjoyment, and for every band, or artist, I dedicate any amount of my time to, countless others will be overlooked.
And even with as often as I might see a name in headlines on music news websites, I may never be moved to look into that name any further.
I just don’t have the time, or the enthusiasm. And that name will continue to be a name I see referenced in headlines announcing a new song, a new album, or a tour.
So, who the fuck is Angel Olsen?
For the longest time, Angel Olsen, born Angelina Carroll, was another one of those names I would see places like the front page of Pitchfork, and over the last decade, I was aware that she seemed to work at would arguably be referred to as a prolific pace—not as prolific, as, say, what was expected out of country performers in the early 1990s, but with a prolificacy that a lot of other acts operating within the catchall genre of “indie rock” simply do not.
Beginning with her debut in 2012, she had hit a stride of issuing a new album roughly every two years; albums that I often could recall or recognize the cover art of, but knew nothing about the music housed within.
I was aware that she had a single, in late 2016 or early 2017, “Shut Up Kiss Me” (not to be confused with the similarly titled Mary Chapin Carpenter tune), which was a bit of a hit with the public radio crowd—but because I don’t often find myself listening to the radio, I had never heard it.
I even went as far as downloading a copy of her densely orchestrated album All Mirrors, released in the autumn of 2019, but that doesn’t mean that I went far enough and listened to it once it had been filed away into my digital music library.
I was aware that All Mirrors had a companion album—Whole New Mess, which was released in 2020—and that both albums were then re-released in 2021 alongside additional ephemera as part of a boxed set entitled Songs of The Lark and Other Far Memories.
And if you were to ask me when it was that I began to give more serious attention to Olsen’s music, one of two things immediately come to mind—the first is her duet, or collaboration, with Sharon Van Etten, “Like I Used To,” a one-off slice of E-Street inspired bombast filtered through the perpetual anxieties of pandemic living, issued in the spring of 2021.
The other is Olsen’s cavernous, eerie, and dreamy cover of Karen Dalton’s “Something’s On Your Mind,” released at the beginning of 2022 as part of the long rollout to the 50th-anniversary reissue of Dalton’s second LP, In My Own Time.
So, who the fuck is Angel Olsen?
What I have only recently come to draw a connection to is what the titular “neon moon” referenced in the Brooks and Dunn song represents—a kind of feeling, and a stark, yet beautiful image, or scene, that I have been attempting to describe for several years.
“Neon Moon” appears on Brand New Man, the debut album from the duo of Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn, released in the late summer of 1991. The song, one of five released as a single, went to number one on the Billboard Hot Country Singles and Tracks chart—and it, like so many other songs by Brooks and Dunn, and so many songs from other artists in this era of country music, occupies that nebulous space where, as a kid, I had a vague idea of when it was from, but until recently, I was not aware it was from the very first Brooks and Dunn album—a song that, even after the duo released subsequent LPs in the years that followed, still received a lot of radio airplay.
Over a decade ago, the very notion of a “neon moon” was the descriptor I was looking for but unable to articulate in such a way, after I heard the slow-burning song “County Line” by the idiosyncratic indie-folk artist Cass McCombs.
The first single from (as well as the opening track of) his fifth full-length Catacombs, “County Line” was, at the time of its release in 2011, like nothing I had heard and nothing else on the album. It wasn’t a “bait and switch”—not exactly. Still, the shadowy melancholy he could weave into the song’s simmering tempo and arranging was not indicative of the direction and tone of the other seven songs on the album.
And within that shadowy melancholy, there wasn’t a “twang”—not precisely, but in the extremely deliberate way “County Line” is paced, and with the warm, antiquated sound of the keyboard played throughout, there was something very “western” about it. And it’s the kind of song; the more I sat with it (it was one of my favorite songs of 2011), the more it conjured this vivid image of a dark dance floor of a honky tonk, full of lonely and perhaps sad people, all desperately trying to find some connection in the darkness, swaying to the music—all of them bathed and slightly illuminated by the glow of the neon beer logo signs hung around them.
The light of the neon moon.
The thing about “County Line” that I understood at the time was, whether intentional or not, the part of McCombs extraordinarily reminiscent of an older style of country and western music from the late 1970s and into the early 1980s. And I often return to that image of sad, lonely people swaying in the light of the “neon moon” when I hear something with this very specific sound.
And it is that sound, or aesthetic is ever-present across the 10 tracks of Angel Olsen’s most recent full-length, Big Time.
So, who the fuck is Angel Olsen?
Over the last decade, since the release of her indie-folk leaning Half Way Home, Olsen hasn’t exactly drastically shifted her sound with each subsequent release, but, as she’s described in the logline of the Pitchfork review of her 2017 odds and ends collection, Phases, there is something “defiantly mercurial” in the way she continues to pull different sonic palettes while she pushes herself forward as an artist.
In a long-form interview with Sasha Geffen before the release of Big Time, Olsen explains that she “leaned into” a part of herself she had been “shying away from all these years.”
“I tried to break out of folk music,” she continued. “And I hated being labeled country glam. Then, I got to the point where I was like, whatever people want to call it, I don’t care,” adding that she has learned to let go of labels and embrace what she’s feeling within the moment.
And it would be too easy, and it would be doing the album's complexities a disservice to simply refer to Big Time as a “sad country album,” because it is so much more than that. Inspired, in part, by the 1970s country music Olsen listened to while in isolation from the early days of the pandemic, Big Time, in all of its voluminous, lush arranging, is a meditation on the grief from the passing of both her mother and father (in a relatively short time of one another), as well as the opportunity to reflect on and embrace her identity since coming out as queer in 2021.
Even within that give and take of disliking labels or being pigeonholed into a specific sound, and even within the inspiration from and commitment to the sound of a genre from nearly 50 years ago, there is still a defiantly mercurial nature to Big Time—because within the robust warmth of that western sound, you can also hear nods to the smoldering lamentations of torch songs and singers, and the subtle, slinking groove of R&B and soul.
That subtle, slinking, soulful, R&B groove is tucked into the album’s slow-burning opening track, “All of The Good Times,” which is among the songs on Big Time that are bathed in the glow of the neon moon—though here, it is much less somber and lonely sounding than it’s going to get the further Olsen takes you into the world of the album. And it is fascinating how Olsen and her stable of collaborators have created a set of tunes that, at no point sounds derivative of the echoes of the past that inspired it, but rather, pay a tender, beautiful, and at times, viscerally somber homage.
“All of The Good Times” begins with a steady, crisply produced beat, a bassline that is not in a hurry, and rumbles slowly, just underneath the ancient warmth of the long organ drones—and musically, “Good Times” almost effortlessly glides into that soulful groove once it arrives at the thundering and bright chorus, flanked by the blasts of a horn section.
The album, while 10 songs and roughly 45 minutes, probably could have fit within the confines of a single LP—the vinyl pressing of Big Time gives the songs a lot of room to breathe, and with two or three tunes pressed onto a side, it breaks the tone of the album down moment by moment, with the first side perhaps being the most jubilant of the four; and as you continue to get up and flip to the next side, the conceits of the album as a whole becomes more apparent and those somber and lonely feelings, both in the arranging and lyrics, begin to take over.
The first side of Big Time ends with the titular track—a swooning and extremely twangy love song co-written with Olsen’s partner, Beau Thibodeaux, that details how they met, including a trip on a canoe and a reference to the 1980s lite FM slow jam, “Lady in Red.”
And, as one might anticipate from a song tracking the earliest stages of their relationship, set to an enormous, rollicking, and tumbling arrangement, it is among the most hopeful found on the record, through its vast chorus, which is both a recognition of the work it took Olsen to get where she was comfortable identifying as queer, as well as a heart on sleeve declaration of love. “I’m losin’…I’ve left it behind. Guess I had to be losin’ to get here on time,” she bellows over cascading pedal steels and jaunty piano keys, “And I’m living, I’m loving, I’ve loved long before—and I’m loving you big time. I’m loving you more.”
The longer I have spent writing about music, in the way that I currently do write about music, the more I am remiss to draw direct comparisons from one artist to another, or mention other singers by name—even if the comparison makes sense, or is warranted in some way, my instinct is that an album, and the person responsible for that album, is worthy of standing on their own.
The further Olsen takes you into Big Time, though, and the more I sat with it, listening through an analytical ear, the more I found myself writing down other names as a point of reference when the tonality of the album begins to shift.
A name that I was not surprised to find myself writing down is Karen Dalton—a singer and songwriter who has amassed a cult following through her influence on other artists, and through listeners eventually discovering her two beloved, idiosyncratic albums, It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You The Best, and In My Own Time.
Dalton, as a vocalist, has an unmistakably unique and iconic voice. In her Wikipedia, it’s described as “world-weary” and “bluesy,” and yes, sure, those are ways to describe it, but there is something about it that is almost impossible to put into words. And as a whole, Olsen’s voice is in no way similar to Dalton’s, but on both the deconstructive cover of Dalton’s “Something’s on Your Mind,” and on the lush “All The Flowers,” the song that arrives at Big Time’s halfway point, Olsen does push her voice into places that are not exactly “rough around the edges,” such as Dalton’s was, but into an unfamiliar place.
“All The Flowers” is the most folksy song on the record, but in being the most folksy, it is still calling back to a different era in how it is arranged, unfolding over gently plucked acoustic guitar, and underscored by warm, gorgeous string accompaniment, with Olsen delivering her vocals within a range that is not out of reach for her, but much breathier, perhaps a little lower sounding, and surprisingly fragile, specifically in the places where she shifts in between notes.
And perhaps this reminiscence to Dalton’s voice is a stretch, or something you might not hear the same way that I have heard it—perhaps it, like the very notion of the “neon moon,” is more about a feeling that radiates off of the song. The feeling that comes from the way Olsen, much like Dalton and much like another esoteric cult figure in folk music, Sibylle Baier, stretches certain words out so that they delicately tumble into just the right place onto the music that is always in motion underneath.
A name that I was surprised to find myself writing down is Elizabeth Grant—the polarizing figure in contemporary music known to many as Lana Del Rey. And there are, really, few places where you might be able to find similarities between Grant’s canonical work as Lana Del Rey and Olsen’s output over the last decade, but there were a handful of moments throughout Big Time that reminded me of times when Grant adopts her huskier, slow-burning “torch singer” persona—songs like “Old Money,” from Ultraviolence, for example, or even the glitchy, cavernous propulsion of “Love,” from Lust for Life.
It’s a feeling that can begin to hear the hints of on the third track—the ethereal “Dream Thing,” and is something much more prevalent on the very last side of Big Time, in the impressively restrained, tense, and beautiful final two tracks, “Through The Fires,” and “Chasing The Sun,” both of which are a night and day difference in their hushed approach when compared to the dizzying heights and sheer bombast Olsen conjures “Right Now” and “Go Home”—song that both begin in the luminescence of the neon moon, but by they reach their respective conclusions, are blinded by how bright the light becomes.
For several years now, I have been trying to find the space where both grief and joy coexist—or, at the very least, the place where they intersect.
I have been told, and even assured, that this space does exist somewhere, and I have spent so much time trying to locate it, but have, as of yet, been unable to.
It is always one more than the other. Never the convergence of both.
For as radiant as Big Time is capable of being in its moments of joy, it is an album inherently rooted in Olsen’s attempt at processing grief—and if not her grief, the wading through complicated, uncomfortable feelings.
Lyrically, Olsen is at her least fragmented within the album’s first side, because the deeper you go into Big Time, the more ambiguous her writing becomes; fittingly, her use of murky imagery and poetically vague language begins in “Dream Thing,” which is woozy and disjointed in a Lynchian sort of way. “I had a dream last night—we were having’ a fight,” she begins. “It lasted 25 years; it was a waste of fears. Then I ran into you, and you just smiled at me. Said, ‘I love the new suit you’re wearin.’’ Whatever that means.”
“Dream Thing”’s chorus is also rooted in a kind of dream-state reflection and encounter: “I was lookin’ at old you—lookin’ at who you’ve become,” Olsen states. “I was hopin’ to talk some—music had already begun.”
Later on both “Ghost On” and the gauzy and swirling “Right Now,” Olsen writes about the difficulties and emotional complications that come with a romantic partnership, and as Olsen explained in an interview, her first queer relationship—“I don’t know if you can love someone stronger than what suits you,” she muses on “Ghost On.” “And I can’t into the past that you’re used to—I refuse to.” Then, in one of the most human and relatable lyrics across the album, on “Right Now,” she simply states, “Why’d you have to go and make it weird—saying things you think I need to hear.”
Admittedly, Big Time is not Olsen’s “pandemic record”—the oldest song she had written for it dates back to 2017, but it is an album in part born out of the tumult of the last two years. Outside of her revelations w/r/t her sexual identity, the loss of her parents, and the isolation of pandemic living, in songs like “Through The Fires” and “Go Home,” Olsen reflects on the unrest and uprisings in the summer of 2020, sparked by the death of George Floyd.
Olsen refers to a song like “Go Home” as a letter to herself and how you “can’t present to know what anything is,” adding you “really just have to live the experience and be able to be corrected and humbled by community.” And in the way it’s written, it is clear to see the more significant societal point she’s making because, at a certain point in the song, it’s anything but subtle when she sings through seemingly gritted teeth and exhaustion, “We watched it all burn down and did nothing. Why does it come to this to mean something?”
But even outside of her reflections on the racial inequality that boiled over in unprecedented ways, “Go Home,”, especially in its chorus, is the kind of song that, regardless of what its actual meaning or intent is, can be open to personal interpretation—a kind of terrible, lonely, haunting feeling that knocked the wind out of me the first time I heard it. “I wanna go home,” she pleads. “Go back to small things. I don’t belong here—nobody knows me. How can I go on with all those old dreams? I am the ghost now, living those old scenes.”
And I am uncertain when, exactly—like, how far back I began to use the expression “I’m just havin’ a time” to describe, albeit in a non-committal way, what I was going through if and when I was really struggling—and to be more specific, if and when I was struggling emotionally, i.e., more depressed than usual, or anxious, or irritable, or unable to process any or all of it constructively.
Big Time is, as you may have surmised by now, 4,000 words into this reflection, an impressive accomplishment—not only in how Olsen writes so openly about herself and her grief, or the way she and her collaborators have such an uncanny grasp on both the sound and the feeling of a specific era of a specific genre, but it’s impressive because of the way she, in staying as true as she can with that aesthetic, still makes it her own, bending it in surprising and imaginative ways.
And I made the mistake, as I have often been doing on Friday mornings, when new records are now released, of listening to Big Time during the first 90 minutes of my work day—and as the album continued to play on one AirPod as I made my way through the duties I have in the morning, I had a cursory understanding of what the album was about—or, at least, what partially inspired it, but after it reached the halfway point, I was not prepared for what the song “This is How it Works” would do to me, and how it would make me feel.
“That song’s about my mom,” Olsen explained in the lengthy conversation about the album with Pitchfork, before its release, and in the site’s review of Big Time, Jenn Pelly describes it as having been “written about phone calls to her mother.
I have come to understand, and be more accepting of, especially as of late, is regardless of what a song is actually about—like, what the songwriter’s intent behind the song was, the song can still, and often does, mean something else to you.
And there is a sadness in “This is How it Works” that was difficult for me to hear, simply because, regardless of what Olsen’s true intention with the song was, as I listened, I recognized this sadness she described as a terrible and accurate depiction of my own.
“This is How it Works,” in a sense, is the place where Olsen’s meticulous attention to detail in recreating the sound of a genre from a bygone era and the dreamier, woozier inclinations she exhibits in other areas on Big Time converge. The twang is present in the steady but slow and subtle rhythm, the warmth radiating from the slightly wonky-sounding electric piano, the gentle strums of the acoustic guitar, and mournful pedal steel serving as a means of punctuating Olsen’s lyrics—but there is a give and take within “This is How it Works.” She never loses her grasp over the song, but she allows the tension to build, and when it does, there is a release in the form of a gorgeous, slow-motion haze that is hypnotic to hear.
And there is, of course, a visceral desperation in “This is How it Works”—a pleading that you can hear in Olsen’s voice, but more importantly, you can feel it. She doesn’t play her hand right away and lets those uncomfortable feelings build until the song’s choruses.
“I’ve never been too sad—so sad that I couldn’t share,” she begins in one of the more attention-grabbing opening lines I can recall in recent memory. “When you can’t find the words, guess it’s time to listen. Took me a lot to get here.”
“Is there somebody I can call?” she asks as the narrative unfolds. “Someone who knows where I am—someone who knows how it’s been?”
And as “This is How it Work” reaches its first chorus, there is this feeling of emotionally hitting rock bottom. In doing so, there is a terrible uncertainty of not knowing if anyone will be there to pull you out this time. “I know you can’t talk long,” Olsen sings. “But I’m barely hanging on. I’m so tired of telling you it’s a hard time again”—lines that she later changes in the song's final chorus.
“I’m so tired of saying I’m tired—it’s a hard time again. Tell me a story that’ll make me forget it’s a hard time again.”
And there is a trick in “This is How it Works”—a kind of legerdemain that an intelligent songwriter can pull off and make it look (and sound) effortless. If the song, as Olsen herself, describes it, is “about” her mom; and if it, as critic and writer Pelly describes it, as being about phone conversations between Olsen and her mother, the real turn in the song, which is never really resolved, is not knowing who the protagonist is.
Is this Olsen’s narrative, and the things she uttered on the phone to her mother?
Is this her mother’s narrative, and are these the things she uttered into the phone to her daughter?
Or does it even matter.
And I am uncertain when, exactly, I began using the expression “I’m just having’ a time” to describe in a non-committal way what I was going through if and when I was really struggling emotionally. And it is tiring—this means of avoidance. Avoidance with others but also, and perhaps more detrimental long term, an avoidance of yourself.
And what makes “This is How it Works” such an important song for me is that I have had this conversation before—and I have been on both ends of it. There is a sadness that, at times, is entirely too difficult to articulate, and it is much easier to say that you are “tired” or that you are “having’ a time” rather than try to describe the specifics.
But I am tired of telling you I am tired.
Of telling you that it’s a hard time again.
I am certain you are tired of telling me the same thing.
At the top of the page, the first note I wrote when I sat down with Big Time to listen analytically was, “Who the fuck is Angel Olsen?” And at the bottom of the page, in my thoughts on the album’s final song, “Chasing The Sun,” this is the last thing I wrote—
Driving away the blues doesn’t mean that they are gone forever.
In its final moments, Big Time concludes with two of its most smoldering pieces—in places, they are the most reserved or inward sounding of the set, but both “Through The Fires” and “Chasing The Sun,” in some ways musically similar to one another, find Olsen walking a line between the lush, densely layered, Karen Carpenter-esque sound, found in numerous other places throughout the album, and the hazy, ethereal, “torch song.”
In the end, an album steeped in so much emotional tumult like Big Time is, there is no clear resolution in its final two tracks—“Through The Fires,” which begins in a place of restraint before reaching dazzling, kaleidoscopic heights as it comes to an end, offers resolve in the self-reflective lyrics. “I lost sight, then I made up my mind to learn to release the dreams that had died,” Olsen sings.
Then, in the second verse, “The feeling I found showed me how I could lose—to love without boundary and put it to use. To remember the ghost who exists in the past but be freed from the longing for one moment to the last.”
And this sense of escape—to be freed from longing, or that the blues have been driven away- comes from the slow-burning and ultimately dramatic and heartfelt “Chasing The Sun,” which gives the slightest flicker of hope. “Chasing The Sun” is a love song, yes, or at least it appears to be one in the saccharine, intimate portraits Olsen paints with lyrics like, “Write a postcard to you when you’re in the other room. Just writing to say that I can’t find my clothes if you’re looking for something to do,” or “I can’t seem to get anything done with someone like you around. Everyone’s wondering where I’ve gone—having too much fun.”
But even if it is a love song or song written from a place of love, there is something incredibly bittersweet about it—extraordinarily gorgeous and jaw-dropping in places, yes, but the sense of melancholy from the beginning of the record is still here in the way.
Olsen turns the phrase “Driving away the blues” into a mantra as the song ends—not out of desperation, but perhaps out of exhaustion, and as a means of repeating it enough times, so there is something to believe in.
Driving away the blues doesn’t mean that they are gone forever.
In its stunning finale, Big Time doesn’t drift away from the idea of the people bathed in the light of the neon moon. As restless of an artist as Olsen has been until this point, I hesitate to say there is a restlessness to the album itself, though it does move away, in its final side, from the 1970s western sound that inspired the whole. If there are places throughout the album that could serve as the soundtrack to a dance floor comprised of sad, lonely people trying to make a connection, however fleeting, in the glow of the neon moon, “Chasing The Sun” is twofold—in its most heartfelt confessions, it is the sound of that connection being made; in its harrowing theatricality and exhaustion, it is the sound of last call and the loneliness lingering still for one more night.
Big Time is a bold, enormous artistic statement for Olsen. She and producer/collaborator Jonathan Wilson have created an album that is a stunning homage to a sound and a genre. More importantly, it is utterly fearless in how it explores grief, joy, and self-identity. There are places where, yes, it can be infectious—but more memorable than something “catchy” in the album’s first half is just how resonant and thought-provoking its themes are, which haunt for much, much longer.