REVIEW: Angel Olsen - "Half Way Home"


Angel Olsen - Half Way Home
Release Date: Sept 4th, 2012
Label: Bathetic Records

A great song can make the listener feel that the musician is singing just to them.  Talented songwriters understand this well, and will often fill their music with relatable themes that can speak to the unique experiences of whoever may be hearing it.  This ability of music to connect the mind of the artist with the mind of the listener is a beautiful thing.  It's often what gives music its power.  On Angel Olsen’s debut LP, Half Way Home, she adds another dimension to this connection between artist and consumer.  Olsen never seems to be singing directly to the listener; instead, the listener is invited to observe a musical dialogue between Olsen’s inner thoughts.  Allowing the listener to enter the deepest shadows of the mind, Olsen has created one of the darkest, most revealing, and most strangely exciting record of 2012 with Half Way Home.

Right from the beginning with the opening track, “Acrobat,” it becomes clear that Olsen sings like nobody else.  The easy way to describe Olsen’s voice would be to slap her with the overused word “smoky,” and while that’s all fine and nice, there is much more working within Olsen than a singular darkness.  The reason why Olsen is one of the more unique singers out there has more to do with the element of surprise. 

Just like a great storyteller, Olsen perfectly controls her music's highs and lows, magnifying each structural twist along the way.  On “Acrobat,” Olsen begins with gentle, straightforward vocals, but then after a few lines, quickly falls into an almost whisper for three words: “if I do.”  She then resumes with the steady singing, constantly hinting at a vocal explosion of emotion that never quite arrives.  And then, out of nowhere, at the 1:09 mark, Olsen croons louder and louder until the melody in the background rewinds itself and finally resets to the steady vocals.  While many first-time listeners might find Olsen’s music a little too simple, I would suggest focusing on the playfulness of her voice from moment to moment, and then going back and noticing how these vocal choices have consistently influenced the backing music.  The result, in my opinion, is a sublime collection of thoughtful tracks.

While many will be transfixed with Olsen’s unique voice, the most powerful element of Half Way Home is the way the listener is allowed to discover dried up thematic material all over again, but this time with a fresh perspective.  There has been this bizarre trend in writing where commenting on the cliché has now become the biggest cliché of all.  In a few years, it will be commenting on the commenting of the cliché that is cliché… and so on and so forth.  Olsen strips all of this away, offering a standard singer/songwriter album about love, lost love, needing love, and all of the complications that surround such themes.  We’ve heard and read about these themes over and over again.  To make them feel new again would be an artistic feat worthy of a standing ovation… and Olsen pulls it off.

How does she do it?  While most art depicts the theme of love as a thought processed through one person communicating with another, Olsen tackles love through the many voices in her own head.  We all have inner thoughts that ping-pong through our brains every second of every day, but such a universal feeling has rarely been translated so well into music.  This is not Olsen simply telling you or her lover what she is feeling.  Rather, this is her capturing those moments in everyday life where decisions are debated, where the layers of stress and “to dos” are handled, and where love and life’s other huge weights are considered.  In these universal moments, Olsen is capturing her own mind.  Knowing this is the approach changes the entire album.  Olsen’s vocal changes and the ups and downs of her emotions now have an anchor point. 

These changes aren't musical decisions - they're new thoughts invading previous thoughts and changing the direction of the song.  The best example is on “Can’t Wait Until Tomorrow,” where Olsen simply talks over the softest of strummed guitars.  Her vocals gently become more and more manic.  They become faster and less coherent.  It’s a stream of consciousness that continues to roll over itself like train wheels spinning out of control.  And then the most magical moment on Half Way Home occurs at the 1:24 mark.  A large drum breaks up her rant, and Olsen bursts open with: “With all my life on my mind.  Turn all my dark into light.  Take all the hate in my mind… and put it aside.”  With this realization and a new, complete focus on a singular thought, Olsen repeats, “put it aside” in a whisper followed by wobbling crooning which mimics the hundred previous thoughts fighting in her mind, but as a complimentary hum rather than words in conflict.  The viscous hum dissolves into a tranquil murmur as Olsen seems to have actually found peace within her mind for the first time since the song began.  This less-than-a-minute moment on Half Way Home proves Olsen to be a sharp songwriter who utilizes some of the most inventive approaches to otherwise overdone themes, all the while hiding the brilliance under the mask of minimalism.

Half Way Home is one of those great treats for music fans who like to dig deep into art.  One could listen to this album and be content with Olsen’s unique vocals and with the pretty moments from track to track.  For those who listen to every choice and moment, Olsen quickly morphs from nice new talent in the folk world to the creator of one of the most fascinating pieces of art this year.  Don’t let the simple melodies fool you.  Like the people you think you know in your day-to-day life, there's always much more going on beneath the surface, inside the secret depths of the mind.  We’re just fortunate that Olsen opened the door to hers and let us inside, unhindered, for close to an hour, and that hour is now forever.