The EP (extended play) is a niche genre that, surprisingly, has still retained meaning in the digital download age. Situated between a single and a complete album, its short format has typically served as either an introduction to a new band before a full LP has been released or as a posthumous repository for recordings that failed to make it on an album. Mudhoney‘s Superfuzz Bigmuff (1988) is a good instance of the former, while Pavement‘s Watery, Domestic (1992) is a solid illustration of the latter. This is also to say that EPs can stand on their own despite their relative brevity. Both of these EPs are classic statements from these bands.
Forever Means by Angel Olsen exists in an entirely different register from these examples, though it fits on this provisional spectrum of purpose and meaning. It shares a stronger musical kinship with boygenius (2018), the debut EP by the supergroup involving Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and Julien Baker, who are generational peers of Olsen. Yet, Forever Means is a more minor, quiet affair, coming in the wake of her critically acclaimed sixth album Big Time from last year. With the bucolic romanticism of the lyrics and vocals that recalled Roseanne Cash and Patsy Cline, Big Time indulged more fully the country music origins of Olsen’s songcraft that had hung back on her previous recordings that initially trended toward indie folk rock.
Forever Means continues the specific sound of its predecessor. Consisting of four tracks, it draws from the recording sessions for that LP, venturing further into the root system of classic Americana. As the title suggests, it also examines “forever” as a theme. Forever in what sense? Sometimes, it’s about living with the past – former love above all – which can grant contrasting senses of freedom and restraint. “Here it comes no way to stop it now / I’m broken,” she sings with a dose of melancholy, “Down for you like no one else / Like no one else.” These lines, suspended on a drawn melody of piano, saxophone, and organ, are from the opening track “Nothing’s Free”, a slow dance number that sets the mood.
On another occasion, forever is about the aspirations and uncertainties of belief. “Each moment arrives and then disappears, but the searching goes on forever,” she observes in musically stripped-down fashion on the second title track, “Forever Means”. The third song, “Time Bandits”, regards the feeling of eternity that can inhabit singular moments. “I want you, I want you / I need you right now,” Olsen implores her counterpart. “To be here and lay down and get on the ground.” The closing number, “Holding On”, which is the most rock-oriented of the four, considers what forever might mean for another person, one’s partner in this instance. “How long have you been standing there?” she asks. “Tell me, how much did you see?”
This is an intermediate, exploratory work, though it possesses a pleasurable, nocturnal warmth that envelopes the listener. Lyrically vulnerable, though musically confident, it should be played during the small hours of the night. With the exception of the EP’s closer, the songs tend to drift toward soft conclusions with instrumental endings. Clocking in at around 15 minutes, it’s over before you know it.
Olsen is no stranger to the EP genre – this is her fifth. Like scratch notes taken by Eudora Welty or a photographic contact sheet of William Eggleston, this EP performs like a sketchbook for ideas and possible new directions. By design, Forever Means isn’t intended to win over new fans but to reach existing ones. It does not amount to a classic statement, but I don’t think she anticipates it as such. It provides a coda for Big Time, completing a set of thoughts begun with that album’s recording. It reaffirms her rising status as a worthy successor to esteemed figures like Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, and Iris DeMent.