Angel Olsen‘s sixth studio album, Big Time, co-produced by Olsen and Jonathan Wilson, highlights the singer-songwriter’s consummate absorption of the Americana genre – its essential form and contemporary cross-pollination with rock, pop, and jazz. Throughout Big Time’s ten-song sequence, Olsen is recast in a manner that brings to mind Bob Dylan’s makeover via the Daniel Lanois-led Time Out of Mind, Beck’s rebranding a la the Nigel Godrich-steered Sea Change, and Katie Crutchfield’s recent metamorphosis courtesy of the Brad Cook-helmed Saint Cloud.
In the opener, “All the Good Times”, Olsen wistfully addresses the impending loss of a relationship (“I can’t tell you I’m trying / When there’s nothing left here to try for”). Her voice is bolstered by a simple drum beat and accented by a pedal-steel part that slices moodily across the sonic field. She effortlessly embraces the persona of Golden-Age diva and Grand Ole Opry aspirant, conjuring country’s pantheon, everyone from Loretta Lynn to Roy Orbison to Emmylou Harris to Jamie Johnson.
In the album’s title cut, a strummy acoustic and prominent pedal steel frame Olsen’s honey-soaked vocal. Olsen pivots from the avant-garde-leaning auteur of 2016’s indie-ambitious My Woman and 2019’s darkly cinematic All Mirrors into a Nashville-inspired chanteuse, evoking Patsy Cline’s greatest hits and the smoky textures of k.d. lang’s debut, Shadowland. The six-and-a-half-minute “This Is How It Works” similarly features Olsen’s supple voice undergirded by dreamy instrumentation, including dynamic interplays between Wilson on electric guitar, Spencer Cullum on pedal steel, and Grant Milliken on vibraphone. The song’s final two minutes is a pastoral yet buoyant instrumental segment that wouldn’t be out of place on a stripped-down version of “Free Bird” or an “unplugged” Allman Brothers jam.
With “Dream Time”, meanwhile, Olsen offers a folk-inflected ballad, a subtly lagging drum part creating a languorous, narcotized effect that may remind some listeners of Eleni Mandell’s more atmospheric work. “All the Flowers” shows Olsen and Wilson experimenting with reverb, chorus, and echo, Olsen’s voice high in the mix and tremulous. Understated string sounds offset a tinkly piano part. With “Right Now”, Olsen’s voice, again dabbed with reverb and echo, is accompanied by a ringing guitar and splashy drum part. “But I’m telling you right now / If we’re apart or here together, I need to be myself,” she moans, embracing a vulnerability undiluted by impressionistic lyricism, ironic vocal timbres, or instrumental deflections.
“Through the Fires” shows Olsen revisiting her affinity for metaphor, acknowledging wounds that are an integral part of her life while continuing to process grief and regret (“To remember the ghost / Who exists in the past / But be freed from the longing”). On the closer “Chasing the Sun”, Olsen’s breathy vocal, complemented by Drew Erickson on piano, brings to mind Billie Eilish’s jazzy deliveries on last year’s Happier Than Ever. However, as the song progresses, she more fully expresses her vocal range, transitioning seamlessly from lower to higher pitches, her steamy maneuvers pointing to an often under-recognized pop sensibility. Jacob Braun’s cello adds depth and sonority to the track.
With Big Time, Olsen offers an immediately accessible and restrainedly adorned batch of songs. While the set’s melodies are not pronouncedly hook-driven, they are indeed entrancing due primarily to Olsen’s consistently sensual tone and precise phrasing. One imagines that Wilson, who helped facilitate folksy J. Tillman’s transformation into the marquee-ready Father John Misty, played an integral role in crafting Big Times’ big picture, its utilitarian mixes, and its retro and less-is-more aesthetic. With Big Time, Olsen draws inspiration from some of popular music’s most perennial templates, revamping them and, once again, reinventing herself.