In her 1968 essay collectionSlouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion wrote, “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” Didion said we should treat our former selves gently, give a passing glance here and there, because if we don’t, they’ll catch up to us anyway: “Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 AM of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”
On Thursday night, Angel Olsen said more or less the same thing. Olsen was introducing “California,” a cut from her most recent album Phases, itself a collection of cuts that didn’t make other albums. She said she wrote “California” in 2007, when every indie girl had a song with a She & Him-esque “doo doo doo doo” interlude or a cutesy hummed bridge. Olsen seemed embarrassed of “California,” or at least honest about the fact that it was not her favorite. Before she played the song, Olsen noted that “It’s fun to relive your past. Always.” As a generalization, I’m not sure I’d agree; but Angel Olsen’s show at Austin’s Paramount Theatre — the last show of her current tour — was a flex of time travel, and it was pretty fun.
The Paramount Theatre is only sometimes a concert venue. Most days, it’s an old movie palace, built in 1915, a fact which I noted immediately upon getting to the venue because it was printed on a sign in the exact spot I thought it would be. I worked in one of these places once, technically only a couple years ago, although my old movie palace was in another college town and built a decade later. At this show, I was seated up at the top of the balcony, up a couple sets of carpeted stairs and with prime views of the painted ceilings and heavy-looking decorative curtains. I know they’re heavy; I used to move them.
This show was part of Olsen’s “Tiny Dreams” solo tour, where she’s hitting up similarly picturesque music halls and vintage theatres across the US, touring without a band for the first time in years. According to the press release announcing the tour, Olsen would be “playing sets that will include her early catalog, new unreleased material, and a lot that falls in between.” She’d be playing songs she wrote years ago, songs that were included in Phases but never performed on tour before. She’d preview some new unreleased stuff. She’d cover Bruce Springsteen, maybe. Though Olsen hit her first real smash with 2014’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness, the singer’s career has spanned nearly a decade. That’s a lot of songs, a lot of past selves to nod to.
“Some of these songs I wrote when I was 23 years old,” Olsen told the crowd in Austin. “And life was just crushing down on me… and it’s still crushing down.”
Typed-up words can’t do justice for Olsen’s sardonic sense of humor. She laughs at the people she used to be — the “doo doo doo”s of “California” and the seven-minute melodrama of “Lonely Universe.” After “Lonely Universe,” Olsen took an extended break to tune her guitar and crack some more jokes. She went to Barton Springs, though she wished she’d gone “somewhere cooler,” and she poked fun at the photographers in the pit below, hoping that no one would run a story with a photo of her with her eyes closed, mouth open, and “like, triple chins.”