With one trembling voice, Angel Olsen delivered this particular line in “Stars” that could stand as a loose summary of her previous record, Burn Your Fire for No Witness: “I feel so much at once I could scream / I wish I had the voice of everything to scream the feeling ‘til there’s nothing left.” True to her word, she sang about her suppressed emotions as if she was wringing her voice dry. She was a cheery friend to have around with always a set of wise words of advice, but like anyone else, her own issues was one overwhelming beast to tame.
It’s exhausting, these feelings, Olsen seemed to sing in that album. And she wakes up only to struggle again in the follow-up, My Woman. “Doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done, you still got to wake up and be someone,” she mutters in the sparse, twinkling meditation “Intern,” like a mantra to push herself off the bed. Worn out as she sounds, though, she braves to try another day even if she knows she’s going to somehow make a fool of herself. She yearns for the same as before in Burn Your Fire for No Witness, to have her heart be tended to, but Olsen in My Woman no longer plays nice.
The immediate call out is the collar yank of “Shut Up Kiss Me,” with its titular hook shaking its neglectful receiver to just look this way already. Olsen sheds any inhibitions she had left in Burn Your Fire for No Witness to settle the score while rocking a pop delivery through stutters and an impatient patter of drums. More restrained but nevertheless gripping, the wincing sigh of “Never Be Mine” and the nervous jitters of “Give It Up” similarly finds Olsen raising her voice as it taps into a familiar territory channeled in her previous record.
Reserved toward the end for a climactic finish, “Woman” features the most hair-raising vocal performance. What starts out as a gentle dialog, and what initially seems like a call to fold her hand, turns into a gut-punching dare. “I dare you to understand what makes a woman,” Olsen urges, bellowing that last word so it won’t go unforgotten. Her provocative words also nail down the core sentiment behind My Woman. It’s not just an attentive ear she needs. She wants her presence known and acknowledged, inside and out, flaws and all.
The lack of that person to lean on hangs on like dead weight during the first half of My Woman, filled with songs armed with hooks that show teeth. “Give It Up” stings not only from the emotional but also physical absence as she longs for a touch and a body to sleep with. “Where you are is where I want to be,” she drills, and like her great songs, she repeats that final line louder and louder to let her feelings really stick.
But My Woman strikes a chord through soft whispers as she does with spine-chilling howls. Olsen keeps her voice never above a relaxed whisper in “Those Were the Days” to match the jazz brushes, loft keys, and starry guitar strums setting the song. She teases out her voice thinner as she gets further into the narrative, ultimately burrowing itself fully underneath the music. “Will you ever know the same love as I’ve ever known?,” she faintly asks toward the end, the big takeaway landing the lightest in volume.
The question posed in “Those Were the Days” plays central in second half of My Woman. Seasons change inside the music during the latter stretch with Olsen marking the passing of time through familiar faces moving on to new company. As well as a new love to call home, Olsen stresses upon impressions left in a bygone relationship and the memories the others take from it. The experiences still cast a shadow in her life, with her often comparing her place in line. While still paralyzed by self-doubt, it’s her want to be better than her past life that draws ears into the solemn long-form “Sister.” She once advised other to open a window some time; it’s time she takes her word for it.
Olsen naturally wonders if it’s the same for those who moved on, if they see a little bit of her as they go on about their lives. That line from “Woman,” about being understanding of what makes her a woman, then, voices a need by Olsen to be remembered right and just — not as an idea or a mere heart-shaped face but as a flesh-and-blood human. Because she knows memories are fickle things, easily distorted by words. She comes to terms that it’s ultimately beyond her control in “Pops,” a fragile piano ballad that closes My Woman, but she seems to have reached somewhat of a self-compromise. “Baby, don’t forget it’s our song,” she reminds. “I’ll be the thing that lives in the dream when it’s gone.” She will be heard and be known alright, whether they like it or not.