Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Angel Olsen Big Time

Jagjaguwar
2022
Jagjaguwar
2022

We’ve all been through some shit these past couple years, but Angel Olsen has been through some shit. Under the weight of the pandemic, Olsen’s personal life was a whirlwind. She came to terms with her queerness, experienced her first queer love and heartbreak. She fell in love with a new partner. And around that time, she decided she finally needed to come out to her aging parents. She did, only to lose her father three days later and her mother within the next two months. As cataclysmic as losing both parents in such a short span of time would be on its own, it also left Olsen with the smallest of windows where it felt as if she had been truly herself with them. All of this is, of course, a ton to process. If you wanted to be crass and career-narrative about it, that’s enough experience to fill half a discography, let alone one album. But Olsen did channel all of that into one album. It makes her latest, Big Time, one of her most powerful works yet.

Olsen has never shied away from heaviness. In 2019, she made the towering, intense All Mirrors, often magnifying human emotions into high drama. Though there was technically the stripped-down companion piece Whole New Mess in 2020, Big Time is the full-fledged followup, and they make for interesting counterpoints. While All Mirrors was almost intoxicating in its moments of darkness, Olsen howling into the void over mesmerizing synths, Big Time feels like the work of someone who has gotten older and wiser, and has gotten older and wiser fast.

This time around, Olsen did things differently. Mere weeks after her mother’s funeral, she showed up at Jonathan Wilson’s studio with songs, but without having rehearsed or totally figuring out what the album would be. There is no shortage of the haunting orchestration that dominated All Mirrors, but throughout Big Time has a more organic, lived-in quality — you can often feel like you’re in the room with Olsen, even when the overall aesthetic of the album can displace exactly where and when that room is.

As its lead singles suggested, Big Time features Olsen digging into dustier, old-school sounds on some of its key tracks. The opening one-two of “All The Good Times” and “Big Time” find her getting just a bit rustic, letting tinges of country seep into her sound more blatantly than ever before. Other tracks, like “Ghost On” and “This Is How It Works,” maintain a similarly smoke-filled, whiskey-soaked tone of decades past. But then on “Dream Thing” or “Go Home” she blends that with stranger melodic turns or atmospherics, and then something like “All The Flowers” presents her voice fragile above little besides strings and flickering piano. At one point in time, some people talked about Olsen like she had the forceful and evocative voice of an old folk singer, transposed to a DIY indie world. Across Big Time, she sounds more unmoored in time, tapping into classic forms in order to wrangle with eternal struggles, love and loss intermingled.

(It’s fascinating that the two albums Wilson has worked on this year are Big Time and Father John Misty’s Chloë And The Next 20th Century, two 2022 releases that harken all the way back to the mid-century, though in very different ways. The main thing the two have in common is how immersive and immaculate they sound, and how the singular artists at the helm use those forms for their own purposes, though we’re obviously talking about very different people who have leaned on completely different versions of 20th century sounds.)

Some sort of time slippage was very much on Olsen’s mind. Speaking to Amanda Petrusich for a profile in the New Yorker, Olsen recalled her headspace while processing grief and new love simultaneously: “I kept having these dreams about time travel, and life just felt like time travel — losing my parents, going through the pandemic. Time expanded in a different way for me. I wasn’t the same.” As Petrusich notes in that piece, there are moments on Big Time that seem to collapse chronologies, with her specifically citing the chorus of “Dream Thing”: “I was looking at old you/ Looking at who you’ve become.”

At the same time, Olsen’s time traveling takes her to some very concrete memories, and leads her to definitively saying goodbye to some parts of the recent past. “All The Good Times” kicks off the album with a breakup reckoning, heartbreak shifting to self-assurance and the conclusion: “Thanks for the free ride/ And all of the good times.” The album’s penultimate track, “Through The Fires,” catalogues the same breakup, with Olsen finding resolve in the song’s gorgeous finale:

I lost sight, then I made up my mind

To learn to release the dreams that had died

In spite of the sound of what I had heard

To recognize truth without any word

I felt the change and it

Came back around

Then I moved in to the feeling I found

And 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 last

And walk through the fires

Of all earthly desires

And let go of the pain that obstructs you from higher higher higher
Higher higher higher higher higher lighter lighter lighter

It seems like no mistake that both of those songs are answered by tracks that revel in the small moments of another love, “Big Time” and “Chasing The Sun.” The latter ends the album with Olsen mentioning aimless days “chasing the sun” and “driving the blues away” with her partner. The song “Big Time” gives the album its name, referencing the way Olsen and her partner say “I love you big time.”

In a sense that phrase encompasses this giant theme hanging over the album. Throughout, Olsen sounds like someone who has started to exit youth and has a vast and complex web of memory to untangle. You can read the title as falling head-over-heels for someone, and you can also read it as the messiness of a human life in all its expansiveness. At one point, she yearns for something simpler, in the aggrieved chorus of “Go Home”: “I wanna go home/ Go back to small things/ I don’t belong here/ Nobody knows me.”

At every turn, Olsen seems to answer all of this with at least resilience, if not full rejuvenation at the birth of a new chapter. It’s there in the contented sigh of “Big Time,” or how she works her way around the word “higher” in the stunning conclusion of “Through The Fires,” the catharsis of that “Go Home” chorus and the surprising outro of “Right Now.” Big Time is a reflective, patient album, primarily abandoning the intense swings between quiet and loud that gave All Mirrors its impact. Yet every time you think it’s going to settle and drift away, it hits you with some new stunning musical turn, some crushing lyric. A lot of what Olsen is wrangling with on Big Time doesn’t necessarily seem like it ever gets answered once and for all. But across the album, she takes that big time and depicts it in small fragments — no less thunderous, but rendered at a scale where you can look at it, turn it over, and learn to move through it.

Big Time is out 6/3 via Jagjaguwar.

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