The entirety of My Woman hinges on this purposeful portrayal of nuanced emotion and the defiance required to be oneself.
Angel Olsen has always been an emotional songwriter, capturing visceral devastation in blunt, assured lyrics. That is no different on My Woman, but her third album boasts an unapologetic and bold confidence. While her songs do broach topics of crumbling relationships and unachieved goals, the bulk of the album addresses the struggles of both seeing people for who they are and being your true self. For Olsen, this turns into a showcase for her unbridled exploration of identity and femininity. Always keen to straddle music genres, Olsen continues to blend influences and styles and, in the process, creates a disarming and audacious album that defies categorization.
From the outset, My Woman overflows with this crushing pressure to find your identity and also to embrace it. On opener “Intern,” this takes the form of oddly reassuring realizations-cum-mantras like “Still gotta wake up and be someone” and “Something in the work will make a fool of you.” In such simple words—and with an even more straightforward, casual delivery that would fit perfectly with the stark vocals of Burn Your Fire for No Witness—Olsen manages to summon the essence of workaday depression, the self-inflicted pressure to “be someone” and the pessimism of knowing that nothing comes easy.
Musically, however, “Intern” is an outlier track on the album, introducing a sonic landscape of broody synthesizer chords and sparse twinkling flourishes. Olsen’s vocals shift from deadpan to falsetto and convey equal amounts of raw emotion in both modes. But the majority of the tracks here are lo-fi electric guitar-driven rockers, partner tracks to the likes of “Hi-Five” and “Forgiven/Forgotten.” From the sorrowful “Never Be Mine” to the authoritative “Shut Up Kiss Me” and the incongruously beach-boppy declaration of unrequited love on “Give It Up,” Olsen’s scuzzy guitar is a focal point. That said, the album has terrific range, with a languid, country-indebted twang creeping into fragile tracks like “Never Be Mine,” “Heart Shaped Face” and “Sister.” And while “Shut Up Kiss Me” is Olsen at her most energetic, her tone otherwise remains aloof, painfully nostalgic, resigned to disappointment.
Yet even as Olsen pores over the emotions of unrequited love, loss and sheer desire, these songs are populated by characters who know what they want and announce their feelings with gusto. “Not Gonna Kill You,” once again, recontextualizes pain and loss with a semi-positive “what doesn’t kill you” mindset, first making the emotions universal with the lines “I’m just another, alive with impossible plans/ I turn the lights low but we both know where we are” before unashamedly preparing for the inevitable end (“‘Til I am nothing else but the feeling/ Becoming true/ Can’t help feeling the way that I do”). “Heart Shaped Face” is even more blunt, with Olsen declaring with assured finality, “Have whatever love you wanna have/ But I can’t be her anymore.” It’s a nice balance to the blunt narrator who demands “Shut up kiss me/ Hold me tight!” with barely a breath between words.
But the pinnacle of the album arrives in the form of second-half seven-minute epics “Sister” and “Woman.” “Sister” starts off as another sparse, languid electric guitar track, with Olsen breathing life into dreams of a sister, a protégé and a companion. That’s the first four and a half minutes. For the rest of the track, Olsen croons “All my life I thought I’d change” ad infinitum, as the drums build, keys become more pronounced and the guitar erupts into a cathartic breakdown. “Woman” brings us back to the pulsing synths of “Intern,” this time with an accompanying slow-funk guitar riff. Olsen’s lyrics betray lingering feelings for an ex, and she cries an accusatory “Tell me that love isn’t true” before delivering the most essential lyric on the entire album: “I dare you to understand what makes me a woman.”
The entirety of My Woman hinges on this purposeful portrayal of nuanced emotion and the defiance required to be oneself. It’s not surprising that Olsen has had to field a constant flow of questions throughout her career about being a female musician whose songs dwell on such emotional devastation. For all its range, what My Woman illustrates above all else is that these feelings, thoughts and experiences—and by extension the characters who share them—are not interchangeable. These are unique narratives and ones that get at the heart of emotional fragility in its many forms. And the very structure of these songs—starting so low only to end on impassioned resilience—goes a long way to show that, even though Olsen is all too aware of the insidious nature of self-criticism, she also recognizes that it’s something you learn and relearn, that such confidence must be nurtured in order to flourish.