By: Seth Stevens
There is a certain magic in the ability to expand and withdraw at the same time. It is to be the ocean, vast and infinite, and still move back from the shore. A successful life is to manage this contradiction, to be powerful and vulnerable, to trust yourself and to trust beyond yourself, to open and close simultaneously. Angel Olsen’s new LP of B-sides, demos, and covers maintains this quality.
The very nature of Phases makes it erratic, a collection of songs from a collection of years, bridging the gap between 2014’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness and 2016’s My Woman. Burn Your Fire pares itself back, even when Olsen’s warble pitches up in intensity. The songs are mostly sung with a hushed guitar accompaniment. When she brings in a full band it is a rhythmic march with Angel as conductor, chin up, but still punching forward within her own world. When she moved onto My Woman, Angel found herself amidst glittering synthesizers and transcendent guitar solos. The music had effectively avalanched outward, full and overwhelming.
Phases picks apart the intersections between the two, and finds the greatest parts of both the large and the small. Leading track “Fly on the Wall” finds Angel back in the rhythmic march, but it relaxes into a contemplation, guitars sparkling: “A love never made is still mine / If only real in my mind.” Here we find tightness and reservation; here we find release. The following song, “Special,” sprawls out in bluesy guitar riffs and psychedelic ascension. But it builds upward only to reign itself back in, to vanish into itself. Angel Olsen is the magician, in total control even when out-of-control, her fluctuation a sleight of hand.
Within this control comes dignity. Even in her quietest (and most beautiful) moments, Olsen is self-certain. From this confidence all great music flows — it is an intangible and highly sought after quality, and when a truly creative person gets their hands on it, they create something new and vital and exciting. Angel has done this throughout her career, and Phases reasserts her claim as one of those creatives. It is what allows her to hold the big and the small together; It is what allows her to carry this contradiction with the strength of a true artist.