“Love and loss, and getting through to the other side,” singer-songwriter Angel Olsen shares about the unifying thread of her latest and sixth studio album “Big Time” and accompanying short film of the same name.
The new album and film, both released in early June, are not just confessional, intimate looks into Olsen’s heartache and recovery, but they may also be her most incandescent and wondrous work to date. Considering the caliber of Olsen’s recordings during her decade-long career, this is especially impressive.
“This was one of my favorite records to make,” Olsen states. “I was like, I have nothing to lose, and I don’t have anything else to prove.”
Stylistically, “Big Time” is a seismic shift for Olsen. On earlier albums, she was a Lynchian torchbearer for 1980s downbeat dreamers, blending gothic romance, synth and beats, occasionally jagged hooks and vintage vocal stylings for a cross-generic sound that shifted on and across albums from folk to indie rock to darkwave.
But there was often a twang in her voice, with vocal references ranging from Emmylou Harris to Patsy Cline, Lucinda Williams to Judy Collins. She had flirted with alt-country before in other albums, most notably 2016’s “My Woman,” but with “Big Time” she has fully embraced a country western sound — the great American genre of heartbreak.
With Olsen’s melancholic vibrato over a twangy slide guitar in the title track, she’s “losing, living and loving” in equal measure throughout most of the song “Big Time.” But it’s love that wins out in the closing chorus. The lyrics mirror Olsen’s mantra: Last year, she came out to both her family and publicly, announcing her relationship to Beau Thibodeaux. Soon after, she lost both of her parents in quick succession. As she recounts in her film, the chorus comes from the refrain she shared with her parents, “I’m loving you big time, I’m loving you more.”
The sepia-toned video for the title track, set in a queer honky-tonk, perfectly captures Olsen’s vintage alt-country vibe. The video is one of three (alongside “Through the Fires” and “All the Good Times”) released from the album’s 28-minute film, with limited screenings across the country and in the United Kingdom. In a series of dreamlike vignettes — sundrenched, lyrically shot and punctuated by voicemails from her late mother — Olsen packs her bags and flees from her seedy motel to hit the open country roads.
During her journey, she time travels, drowns and carries a lightbox filled with grief or hopes. It’s not escaping the past but understanding it to move on. In the surreal film, after an Ophelia-like Olsen drowns but recovers again, she splits into two personae, one saying a watery goodbye to her former, depressed self. Her partner Thibodeaux, who also co-wrote the title track, frames the film and filters into emotional flashbacks. It is a fitting tribute to Olsen’s mother, to her grief and to her supportive relationship.
Directed by Kimberly Stuckwisch, Olsen says it was a collaborative vision: “Some of that stuff was drawing from Kim’s life and we combined our own tragedies together to make something new. It was an interesting experiment.”
“I never write lyrics or songs hoping there will be a story. It’s just like, whatever happens happens. And then when we put it all together, it creates its own story. Looking back, [the story] will probably change for me over time. But right now, it’s just about getting through hardships and making it through the other side and feeling lighter because I think that’s the centerpiece statement.”
Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken
On July 21, Olsen kicks off the Wild Hearts tour at Wolf Trap in support of her latest record. Traveling across the U.S. and Canada with fellow singer-songwriters Sharon Van Etten and Julien Baker, most of the venues for the summer tour will be outside, and partial proceeds will go to a nonprofit that helps people who were formerly incarcerated rebuild their lives.
“I’m looking forward to being in the sunshine with people and hanging out with Sharon and Julien,” Olsen shares. “Sharon and I have known each other for years, and we were trying to find a way to make touring fun again, to put together something really special that fans would freak out about.”
Van Etten and Olsen joined forces for last year’s scorcher “Like I Used To,” and while Olsen doesn’t know Baker as well, she looks forward to the time they’ll spend together: “I’m excited to get to know them more. They’re such a sweetie.”
Each artist will play their own set each evening, with the smoky-voiced powerhouse Van Etten (2022’s “We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong”) and angelic sounding folk-rocker Baker (2021’s “Little Oblivions”), each also playing new material from Pitchfork-approved releases. Olsen will join both onstage each evening for several songs.
“The three of us have very different records. But we’re gonna sing together every night,” Olsen promises, sharing that they’ve been working on a dream cover song with a three-part harmony that she hopes they’ll be able to debut during the tour.
Walking Through the Fires
And what’s next for Olsen? In “Through the Fires,” another single from “Big Time,” Olsen sings:
“To remember the ghost
Who exists in the past
But be freed from the longing
For one moment to last.”
It’s another song of recouping after insurmountable pain, a purification by walking through the flames, embracing the hurt and emerging anew. Over a spare piano and stirring strings, Olsen sings in a plaintive contralto. As the song reaches its crescendo, and the percussion finally kicks in, Olsen’s voice soars, reflecting the refrains, “higher, higher,” and “lighter, lighter.”
In a year of twists and turns, love, loss and rebirth, Olsen is finding that moment of lightness. She will embark on a European tour this fall, with a new EP to be released at a future date.
“More touring, honestly,” she shares of her future plans. “If the world allows for that, then I’m gonna be touring a lot in 2023. And hopefully I can spend some time at home…eventually.”
Follow Angel Olsen on Instagram @angelolsenmusic, Twitter at @AngelOlsen, and online at angelolsen.com. The tour begins at Wolf Trap on July 21, and follow the full Wild Hearts tour schedule here: thewildheartstour.com.