Being a chameleon has its pros and cons. Having the ability to change and adapt can lead to endless creative possibilities, but what happens when you want people to see you for who you truly are? Over the past decade, Angel Olsen has been one of music’s greatest chameleons, moving through styles and genres like indie rock, stripped-down folk, and orchestral pop without ever appearing out of her depth. But on her dela sixth studio album big timeOlsen refuses to wear a guise, showcasing the highs and lows of her real life in all their ragged glory.
Although she hadn’t exactly hidden from the public over the course of her first five records, a number of life-changing events forced Olsen to reckon with the person she was and the person she wanted to be during the making of big time. That included the death of her parents dela and her dela coming out dela, two major events that coincided to bring Olsen’s songwriting to places of love and loss.
More than anything else, big time lives up to its title by playing each emotion to its respective maximalist heights. When Olsen is going for love, she goes full bore without caring about schmaltz or coolness. When she goes for sorrow, it’s a pitch-black and hauntingly shadow take on grief. Whether it’s the lack of guilt or shame in ‘All the Good Times’, the uncertainty of the past on ‘Ghost On’, or the heartbreaking longing of ‘This Is How It Works’, everything on the album needs to be blown out to its biggest proportions.
Sometimes that comes in contrast with the longing for simplicity in Olsen’s lyrics and the no-frills production that is employed throughout the album. The album’s title track (and standout song) speaks of coffee and nature as uncomplicated methods of healing while being backed up by a live-band take on southern gospel-infused country. The conflicting emotions throughout big time get an equal contrast in Olsen’s desire to both go big and keep things small.
That being said, Olsen never sounds lost or confused. Instead, she’s completely self-assured in her performances, even as she deals with the disorienting highs and lows that life throws at people. Only ‘All The Flowers’ truly finds Olsen wavering in her voice and playing up the vulnerability that comes with singing about living life without all the answers. Layers of strings, harpsichord, and keyboards that sound like they’re underwater, waver in and out
If you preferred the harder-hitting style of your woman or the highly refined and polished sounds of All Mirrorsthen the slow-burning country of big time might seem like a bit of a turn-off. If you’re impatient, the languid tempo and airy arrangements might not hold your attention. But big time isn’t a record that’s meant to blow you away immediately – it’s a record that sticks with you and remains close for the times when you need it the most.
That becomes especially apparent as the album transitions into its second half. As Olsen intones that “some truth is never known / until you’ve lost your hand” in ‘Right Now’, she begins to fully embrace the notion that some parts of life can’t be explained through logic or directly dealt with through song . The songs are just there to help make sense of the nonsensical. As she winds through ‘This Is How It Works’, ‘Go Home’, and ‘Through the Fires’, Olsen becomes far more interested in the questions than the answers. “When you can’t find the words guess it’s time to listen,” Olsen gentle sings in ‘This Is How It Works’, embracing the gray areas of uncertainty.
By the time she falls into the final notes of ‘Chasing the Sun’, Olsen has fully embraced the futility of searching for easy answers. After an entire album of dense arrangements, it’s suddenly just Olsen and a piano questioning what, if anything, has been learned by this point. Since Big Time is more interested in the little moments getting blown out to epic and cinematic proportions, a sweeping string arrangement is a necessity to close out the LP.
There aren’t really that many light or playful moments on big time – it’s heavy in the truest sense of the word. But that heaviness never seems to drag Olsen down, even when her songs from her continue to lurch and blend together. The LP is an ode to slowing down and taking a step back, something that can be difficult in a world of nonstop motion and instant gratification. big time frontloads its explosiveness and hopes that you’ll hang on long enough to find some serious raw emotion towards its conclusion.
Rather than turning away from the confusion and chaos that life threw at her, Olsen took those experiences and channeled them into ten songs of heart-rending honesty and exploration. Still, Olsen can’t help but let even the darkest of feelings sound lush and beautiful, propelled mostly thanks to Drew Erickson’s keyboard lines and string arrangements.
The most frustrating thesis of big time is also its most true-to-life: that sometimes there aren’t any lessons to be learned. Life is not a mystery to be solved – it’s a mystery to be stumbled through. Sometimes, all you can do is try to face those mysteries with poise, grace, and refinement. Over the course of ten songs, Angel Olsen makes turmoil and turmoil sound polished and pristine, creating a true triumph along the way. Life doesn’t come with a guidebook, but next time you’re feeling lost, big time just might be the companion you’re looking for.