The first time I heard Angel Olsen’s music was in the back of a small record store in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida in 2011. She was accompanying Will Oldham (known by the stage name Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) on his Free Florida Tour as a member of his “Cairo Gang,wp_postsand she also got to open the show with a few songs of her own. Like Oldham and the rest of the gang on tour, her short set was very bare bones — just her and her acoustic guitar. And honestly, she didn’t need anymore than that. From the moment she started singing, the whole room went quiet, everyone’s eyes (and ears) fixated on this woman with the most luminous voice some of us had ever heard live. Even though I was there to finally see Old perform live in my hometown after spending the few years prior traveling around the country to see him, I walked away that night with more than just the fullness of his performance. I wanted to know who Olsen was and how I could hear her voice more often.
When I got home that night, I scoured the blogs I was familiar with at the time looking for more information on her and her work. I eventually found a six-song EP she released a couple months prior called Strange Cacti. The songs on the EP were as immediately arresting as her performance was that night. With its lo-fi production and its clean but complex arrangements, Strange Cacti was the perfect showcase of Olsen’s luminous voice. But more than that, it also showed off her ability to tell beautifully constructed stories through her lyrics and to arrange complex compositions in ways that make them feel as if they’re floating on air. I was hooked. And I knew I’d follow her work probably for the rest of my life.
Since 2011, Olsen’s career has moved forward in the most incredible way. She has not only held onto the shimmering promise of her early work; she’s just gotten more and more talented. In a level of productivity I could only hope to aspire to, she’s released six full-length studio albums, one compilation of b-sides and demons, and four EPs — all with varying thematic explorations of disappointment, despair, loneliness, and hope and with shifting experimentation in genre and song structure. Olsen’s bent towards eloquent and ornate instrumentation and heavier composition has become more and more prevalent with each new release, showing her voice is just one of many stunning tools she has at her disposal. Last summer, she released Big Time, her lushest, warmest, and most explicit homage to the country music that informed much of her youth, to great acclaim and once again proved her ability to tell thoughtful and poignant stories in addition to moving effortlessly through a new genre.
I know this seems like a wildly long lead up to a review for her newest release, the Forever Means EP, but I think that it’s important to have context for the songs she produced for it. As was highly publicized during the release of Big Time, Olsen’s life for the couple years preceding its release took massive twists and turns: She fell in love, publicly came out as a queer, and lost her parents within the span of a few weeks. When you think about it, it’s truly amazing then that such a hopeful, tender, coherent, and commanding album came out in the wake of all that. The tracks on Forever Means not only help cement Olsen’s previous work and Big Time to each other but also provide some insight into how the work on Big Time came to be.
Produced during the recording of Big Time, the four tracks on Forever Means are not nearly as stripped down as Olsen’s early work but they feel the most reminiscent of it out of anything she’s produced in the years since Strange Cacti came out. More than that, it feels like the culmination of a career spent experimenting with the expansiveness and limits of her own capabilities.The EP opens with the slow, imposing notes of “Nothing’s Free,wp_postswhich has the kind of patient piano composition that makes you feel as if it’s building to something much bigger. “Here it comes,wp_postsbegins the song in Olsen’s swaying lilt, “feel it break that old cell / The one you thought had kept you safe.wp_postsHorns come in to accompany the piano and the light drum beat as she continues, “Here it comes / No way to stop it now / I’m broken / Down for you like no one else.wp_postsThis gives way to a kind of jazzy saxophone solo that helps usher on the rest of the instrumental swells. Somehow, still, Olsen’s voice and her exploration of the feeling of discomfort that’s felt when you’re finally trying to allow yourself to be vulnerable and emotionally honest stand out amongst the ballad-like turns of the instruments.
The title track, “Forever Means,wp_postswas, according to Olsen, written during the production of her 2019 album All Mirrors, but came back to her when she was writing Big Time. It is the most evocative of Olsen’s early work in terms of style, but the lyrics present a wider picture of the growth Olsen’s experienced since the beginning of her career. Olsen’s voice is at the forefront of the song with light electric guitar playing to accompany it. She sings:
Forever means always looking,
Forever means trying to see,
Forever means saying what’s on your mind,
Forevеr means always trying to find,
Forever mеans make sure, take your time,
Forever in your eyes
Forever in your eyes
I see you when you shine
Where her earlier work, particularly on her second full-length LP, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, often highlighted her ruminations on the ends of things — relationships, experiences, feelings, etc. — “Forever Means,wp_postslike most of the work on Big Time, is focused on the concept of “foreverwp_postswithin the context of intimate relationships and how we grow up, age, and grow old with others. To Olsen, “foreverwp_postsdoesn’t just mean holding on to someone, but also holding them dear.
The last two tracks on the album take turns stylistically toward Olsen’s work on All Mirrors and My Woman, but definitely showcase her songwriting’s thematic progression throughout all of her work. “Time Banditswp_postshas a dreamy, vibrating composition that will remind many listeners of the new wave and post-punk slow jams of the late 1980s. Over playful drums and wistful synths, Olsen proclaims, “I want you, I want you, I need you right now / To be here and lay down and get on the ground / And hear it, feel it, know that you’re bound / To the Earth, to each other, and that’s where it’s found.wp_postsIt provides a great book end to the emotional urgency she’s created in her work on the EP and on Big Time. This is Olsen at her most vulnerable in terms of expressing desire for another person’s love and attention.
“Holding Onwp_poststakes us back to some of Olsen’s pre-Big Time songwriting, where she examines the pains and consequences of loss, but it also serves as the EP’s glittering climax. The psychedelic guitar style and choppy drums give way to a rising string arrangement producing a fullness in the song that makes it feel as if it’s hovering right above you. Olsen’s vocals are once again the guiding force of the track as she delivers melodies from all over her range and some of the most somber songwriting on the whole EP. “Holding Onwp_postsends the EP but doesn’t exactly provide a sense of finale. Instead, where the rest of the tracks help point us toward the work she’s produced so far, “Holding Onwp_postsprovides a sense of futurity, showing us where her work might be heading next.
As I finished the EP, I found myself immediately starting it over to listen again from the beginning. Although Forever Means is only four tracks long, it is a perfect bridge between Olsen’s past, present, and future. It showcases Olsen’s ability to move easily and freely through several genres, styles, and themes, and helps reflect back the over decade-long career she’s had of creating work that is emotionally resonant and sonically ambitious. They aren’t just “tracks that didn’t fit on the album.wp_postsThey are little worlds of their own, calling us forward while recalling what’s available to us in the past. If “forever meanswp_postsalways searching, always exploring, always trying, then this EP is a gorgeous example of Olsen doing exactly that in her work.