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A number of digital flyers cover Angel Olsen‘s Instagram page. They advertise her sixth studio album Big Time with witty quips. One-liners like, “Some of the saddest songs you’ve ever heard… and a few happy ones,” and “Out with the bangs, in with the twangs” get ahead of jokes about Big Time before they’re conceived. They point to some attributes the folk singer is known for, nodding to her recognizable bangs (which tend to look a little different with each album rollout) and her music’s propensity to be pigeonholed in the “sad girl” genre. But one flyer sums up Big Time effectively: “It’s not country, but it’s not not country.”
Historically, sorrow has found a home in country music. Some of the most revered country and bluegrass artists of the 20th century have been posthumously named “poets of pain.” In a time before online therapy existed, country music acted as a medium for artists to make sense of their despair, melancholy, and — using a classic country buzzword — lonesome. At the time of writing Big Time, Olsen was experiencing an overabundance of all three.
Big Time isn’t a country album in the sense that you won’t see Olsen accepting any trophies at the Country Music Awards, and her album won’t be stacked up against controversial names like Morgan Wallen on Billboard‘s Top Country Albums chart. But Big Time is Olsen’s bid to join the alt-country genre, a move that feels like a logical next step following 2020’s stripped down project Whole New Mess. Adopting a dusty slide guitar and slight twang, Olsen pens plaintive ballads formed in the aftermath of emotional whiplash. Olsen didn’t initially set out to write an alt-country record with Big Time. She didn’t even practice with her band before hitting the studio, but the songs pretty much wrote themselves.
Big Time was recorded during a tumultuous period to say the least. Now in her 30s, Olsen was unpacking her past traumas after growing up in a religious community and discovering her identity as a queer woman. Olsen came out to her friends with her new partner Beau Thibodeaux, summing up the feeling: “Finally, at the ripe age of 34, I was free to be me.” But only three days later, she got a call that her father had died. His funeral unexpectedly became the occasion Olsen introduced her partner to her extended family. If that wasn’t difficult enough, Olsen’s mother fell ill and passed away only a few weeks later. Suddenly, a time that was supposed to be filled with new romance and celebration became overrun with immense mourning and grief.
Olsen attempted to make sense of these emotional extremes — grief amid love and tragedy amid self-actualization — throughout Big Time. Unlike the country poets of pain before her who sought solace through spirituality, Olsen found herself escaping into dreamworlds on lulling tracks like “Dream Thing.” The hazy, atmospheric song offers a metaphor for all the things she wasn’t able to say to her parents before their passing. Olsen noted how differently time seemed to move during that period, as if slipping past her. “I kept having these dreams about time travel, and life just felt like time travel — losing my parents, going through the pandemic,” she told The New Yorker about her grieving experience.
The penultimate track on the record, “Through The Fires,” exemplifies Olsen’s ability to write transfixing reflections on time. It’s a down-tempo piano ballad gently colored by a light string section and subdued percussion. Displaying some of her most touching songwriting to date, Olsen pens lines about an emotional trial by fire. “To remember the ghost / Who exists in the past / But be freed from the longing / For one moment to last.” Understanding that her grief and self-discovery have left her a different person entirely, she learns to let go of the dreams she once had in order to transcend her past and ultimately become better for it. “Time expanded in a different way for me,” she told The New Yorker. “I wasn’t the same. […] I really am irreversibly changed. I am a very different person than I was in 2020. I’m always me. But I did lose. And I went forward, alone, with my experience.”
“Through The Fires” also has a line about learning to “love without boundary,” something she still holds space for amid the anguish on Big Time. The album’s title track itself is an affectionate ode to her partner, who is also credited on the song. Lines about “good morning kisses” and rhymes of “mine” with “sunshine” border on corny, but the song is undeniably endearing and basks in the glow of a new romance. “I’m loving you big time, I’m loving you more,” Olsen sings, recycling phrases her parents would say to her and incorporating them into her current relationship.
Pairing Olsen’s mourning with her infatuation with her partner, it’s no wonder Big Time leans into the alt-country genre. Her slight country drawl and twangy steel guitar makes sense within the context of Olsen’s musical trajectory, especially since she now resides on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains. The album walks listeners through her personal torment, something Olsen has never shied away from in the past. But despite doleful ballads and effusive love songs, one thing is strikingly absent from Big Time: Olsen’s incredible vocal range. In past records, Olsen’s voice acts as an instrument itself, bending and contorting between low, enveloping hums and shocking high notes to evoke a range of emotions. With the exception of the cinematic climax on her track “Go Home,” Olsen’s voice hovers in the low end of her vocal range, something she noted in an intimate live show earlier this year.
Perhaps the shift is intentional. Maybe she’s letting the music and lyrics on Big Time speak for themselves. After all, the songs are emotionally charged enough without her voice needing to climb several octaves. It’s possible she’s also saving herself from needing to re-experience her pain during live performances; because of her hyper-personal songwriting, she re-lives her highs and lows every night on stage, something she recently described as “an eternal birthday party.” Either way, Olsen’s initial advertisements about Big Time most definitely ring true. The album is filled with some of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard… and a few happy ones.
Big Time is out 6/3 via Jagjaguwar. Pre-order it here.