Angel Olsen worked her way up in the Chicago music scene. Her last few years can be divided into two overlapping story lines. First: one day, Olsen played a show with a friend, and Emmett Kelly, who frequently collaborates with Will Oldham (Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy), was in the crowd. Before long, Olsen received an invitation to perform with Oldham on tour, and she contributed to a couple of his albums. Second: Olsen released her first album, Strange Cacti, in 2010 as a cassette. She also wrote about half of her new album Half Way Home during that period, before taking a break to work with Oldham — those other songs just waiting for their creator to come back. Eventually, Olsen returned to her own work, grabbed those old songs, added some new ones, and with the help of Kelly, rounded out and recorded Half Way Home.
The arrangements constructed by Olsen and Kelly rely mainly on acoustic guitar and vocals. Sometimes a second guitar, electrified, shoots off shards or scraps of accompaniment. The bass, if it’s present, comes off like a snapping rubber band. A drum kit appears occasionally, to hold down an easy shuffle, function as a barely discernible metronome or punctuate a turn of phrase with a couple thumps. But the majority of the songs are skeletal, built on melodic bones — one or two people plucking at their strings, circling over the same notes, or strumming leisurely forward. There are snatches of ’60s pop in “Free” and “The Waiting”, whiffs of country and bluesy lament in “Miranda” and “Tiniest Seed”, and folk all over the album.
Olsen’s voice, whether alone or multi-tracked, is an unpredictable force of nature, in the gentlest way possible. Olsen doesn’t sing with apparent effort, in that she doesn’t sound like she’s trying to roll over her audience like a tank. But she can put her voice wherever she wants to, and she can land it without warning. It can cut or soothe, scare or comfort, and you’re not quite sure what it’s going to do — and when it’s going to do it. The song arrangements give her voice plenty of space to fill.
This element of surprise is enhanced next to the instruments’ simple, familiar sequences. Olsen may start with the guitar and end with the guitar, but as the guitar moves from point A to point B, her voice may carve an entirely different path. She also will throw in choruses of herself — at one point she sounds like an entire ’60s girl-group single-handedly — and backing vocals from other singers to keep the listener off-guard.
The words Olsen sings can be striking. In their year-end list, the magazine The Fader had the “Top Three Depressing Angel Olsen Lyrics” — including “Subtly shedding back the years and into the dark depth we all soon disappear out of this labyrinth that makes up our world / How do we ever know the light inside ourselves?” — and the “Top Three Romantic Angel Olsen Lyrics”. But the lyrics only come into focus after their tone registers. And the meaning of the words changes greatly depending on how they are sung. In a song like “Always Half Strange”, Olsen employs an unnerving vocal technique, using repetition to completely warp and change words. She sings “always” and then “like no other love”, over and over, strangling the phrases by the neck until there’s no way they could suggest the same things they do in everyday conversation. “Always” now means rarely, or more likely never. The words she is singing — “Always… like no other love / like none I’ve known before” — aren’t devastating; on the page, they look more like a statement about love’s greatness. But the way she utters them, stretching them out, hurling them around, reiterating and echoing, fills them with anguish.
In an interview (also with The Fader), Olsen talked about the process behind Half Way Home. She said, “I learned a lot by waiting; I learned how to record better.” This sentiment isn’t often voiced in the world of popular music, where the romance is usually in the ragged first takes, and incentives can lead to a strike-while-the-iron-is-hot mindset. But it worked well for Olsen, who crafted a spare, self-contained record.