One of the most mystifying and emotionally powerful vocalists on the indie scene right now, any release from Angel Olsen demands a listen. Collecting some of her B-sides from over the past few years, Phases offers listeners even more of her heartfelt storytelling. Stripping the production and instrumentation out of every song however, the album feels both repetitive sonically and like a complete step backwards from the Olsen of My Woman. Still gut wrenching and with enough shining moments to be worth the listen, it just feels a little undercooked.
Marching with a deep sense of melancholy, “Fly On Your Wall” slowly reveals the emotional walls of distortion behind its beaten down melodies. While it feels like forever until the dreamy chorus kicks in, once Olsen’s vocals start to sweep through the lush synths it’s really easy to get lost in the layers of melody. “Special” slow-burns discordant harmonies and desperate little guitar lines, as Olsen’s sense of longing is deeply palpable through the lyrics and groovy riffs. The track doesn’t evolve in quite the fluid and satisfying ways that tracks like “Sister” have done on other records, but it still packs enough punch in its release to make the long wait worth it.
“Only With You” plays like a lo-fi lullaby, sung by Olsen as if it were a transmission over an old radio. Lamenting the harsh realities of love that doesn’t work out, the light harmonies offer a sense of mutual understanding while the ambiguity of whether that’s a friend or her lover makes it all the more intriguing. With a whispered wail, Olsen’s country tones come through on “All Right Now” as the shimmering guitars twang under angelic harmonise. Soft and simple, the track is a relaxing look back when the hard times are finally behind you.
Through the harsh pain in Olsen’s vocals, “Sans” deceptively simple writing serves as a brief emotional interlude. Laying everything out in her words, the track isn’t catchy but its earnest delivery makes it entrancingly personal and relatable. Cranking up the distortion for “Sweet Dreams” there’s an immediate heft and memorable feeling to its simple guitar sways. Giving a hazy overtone to her passionate vocals on this track, the sweeping chorus howls are overtly satisfying and powerful. While so much of Phases is rides on its emotional content, the strong instrumental side to this track makes it one of the album’s standouts.
Cheekily delivering her lyrics while being brutally honest with her sadness, Olsen is raw on “California.” Even on the simpler guitars that make much of the album feel slow, the clever hooks and devastating tremolo in her cries make the track an intimate and memorable listen. “Tougher Than The Rest” rides a little too much on the strength of Olsen’s voice, feeling so stripped back that it’s more of a demo than a full song. Though there’s obviously a strong core to the song, it’s so rudimentary that it feels more like Olsen’s take on any vintage pop song than something unique.
“For You” lets the guitars swing a little, giving light echo to Olsen’s words to give the song a strangely powerful kick. Delightfully tender, it offers what “Tougher Than The Rest” never reaches, while still feeling a step or two from being completely. Bringing things back to a slow, acoustic place on “How Many Disasters” the lyrics reach their most hurt and honest. Despite the lyrical transparency of the song however, doesn’t save the track from feeling a tad dull on other fronts.
Falling back into the album’s core unfinished feeling, “May As Well” does alternatively offer an amazing vocal track. Driving the song with its romantically unfulfilled narrative and a performance that steals the show, it’s a shame that Olsen left so many of these instrumental tracks so bare. “Endless Road” closes the album with flickering guitars and a folksy pop-sensibility to its main vocal round. Viewed as something more akin to campfire-folk, the track’s more mysterious lyricism gives it a timeless feeling.
Words by Owen Maxwell