Olsen’s discarded songs are better than others’ best efforts.
Last year, Angel Olsen stepped boldly into the indie limelight with her release of the critically acclaimed My Woman. Featured near the top of every year-end best albums list, My Woman showcased a diverse and confident Olsen. She dished up a melodic dream-pop on “Intern,” channeled Rumours-era Stevie Nicks on “Sister,” and cranked up a lo-fi grit on “Shut Up Kiss Me.” After a torrid year on the road in support of the album, and with her legion of fans growing, the time was right to release Phases, an album of B-sides, home demos, and covers recorded at various times over the last five years.
Usually, an album of demos and covers only interests the most fervid fans because it provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the artist’s songwriting process. It’s an opportunity to see your favorite artist in their most raw form, before all of the production polish. However, oftentimes such a release only gathers dust on a collector’s shelf because it has only a song or two worthy of release alongside others that probably shouldn’t have been. In other words, they simply never stand up to the actual studio full-lengths. Olsen’s Phases, however, is a gem in its own right, able to stand up well against last year’s My Woman. Stripped down and rough around the edges, Phases not only drops clues about Olsen’s creative process, but also bares her musical and emotional roots, cultivating something entirely human that cuts through its haunting ambience.
The album begins with “Fly on Your Wall,” a song originally cut from My Woman, but used for the First 100 Days series that aimed to raise funds and awareness for organizations threatened by the policies of the Trump administration. The song sprawls with Roy Orbison-like guitar jangles, with Olsen’s soft croon summoning a ghostly and incantatory quality. Olsen draws fuel from the song’s spare, simmering strums, letting her reverberating soprano transport the song into otherworldly climes. The rest of the album builds upon this atmosphere. The following track “Special” delivers a tremulous psyched-out garage rock, complete with an extended jam of coiling guitar twangs. Later, Olsen returns to this garage-like psychedelia on the driving “Sweet Dreams,” a song that channels Surrealistic Pillow-era Jefferson Airplane. Whereas other b-side and demo albums suffer from their recording quality, Olsen takes advantage of the lack of production polish by using of dirty guitars and static vocals to create a unique washed-out atmosphere, expanding with mellow psychedelic and folk contours.
Perhaps even more enchanting than this atmosphere are Olsen’s themes of vulnerability, risk, and love. Throughout the album, Olsen maintains an openness in admitting longing and desire, despite not always having that desire fulfilled. For example, after the sedative and mournful lullaby “Only With You” (“You can love you can love you can lose/ Even at your own game”), Olsen gives herself a dose self-affirmation in the following “It’s All Right.” A stunning song that brings together a reverberating falsetto over a shimmering and flanged Americana, “It’s All Right” is beautifully reaffirming, especially in the wake of loss on the previous track.
Yet the struggles with love and loss continue on “Sans,” with Olsen’s vibrating falsetto sounding fragile yet fierce, packing an emotional and country-crooning punch: “I’m feeling kind of tired but I know it’s for the best/ Even when you’re dreaming you’re not getting any rest/ Grasping at the meaning of a love to call my own/ Wish it were as easy as just picking up the phone.”
Despite the playfulness of its brush-shuffle groove, “California” finds Olsen at her most naked and revealing as she expresses her desires for “immediate intimacies.” Her high soprano modulates with a yodel-like warble, making her sound as if on the verge of tears. The song reaches a vocal and emotional climax when she sings, “I’ve never felt quite so open for love/ I’ve never felt quite so open before.” Yet this isn’t a hope of dreamy desperation; rather, it’s confidence in her own vulnerability and openness to possibility, even if that means her heart might get broken.
Even the cover songs on Phases play into these themes, as her take on Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher Than the Rest” strips away the original’s swagger for a glimmering Lykke Li-like seduction. Similarly, her home-recorded rendition of Roky Erickson’s “For You” possesses a haunting charm, making the line “I’m cooked to you so rare” sound simultaneously discomfiting and alluring.
Altogether, Phases does what most collections of B-sides, demos, and covers fail to do. Its enthralling grace proves that many of Olsen’s discarded songs are better than others’ best efforts. From its otherworldly atmosphere to its thematic vulnerability, Phases is Olsen as a songwriter and as a person laid bare, and the result is nothing short of rapturous.