After a few years of sweeping grandeur and synthy ’80s covers, Angel Olsen began a new chapter with last year’s Big Time. She gestured at Muscle Shoals warmth with flashing horns and embraced the pedal-steel twang of her beloved ’70s country stars. She also reckoned with massive changes in her personal life: coming out as queer, losing both of her parents in a matter of a few weeks, and falling in love.
When she completed the album, Olsen was left with a few recordings that didn’t make the final cut. She’s released them now as Forever Means, a four-song EP that bridges the Asheville singer-songwriter’s past and present. The arrangements swing between stark reflections that recall the best of her early material, and the full-band backdrops that have invigorated her more recent work. The former suits the open spirit of Big Time, but the busier arrangements occasionally crowd her newfound lucidity.
Olsen sounds most like her old self on “Forever Means,” which echoes the wistful introspection of Burn Your Fire for No Witness’s “Unfucktheworld.” But where the earlier song dipped into mournful solitude, Olsen savors permanent bonds here. “Forever in your eyes/I see when you shine,” she sings. Separated by nearly a decade, the songs bookend an extended period of growth and upheaval, charting what Olsen has learned about what’s worth keeping and what’s worth letting go.
“Nothing’s Free,” meanwhile, builds from a slow and sumptuous piano foundation. “I’ll never feel more sure of anything,” Olsen sings with a smoky glow, coaxing her addressee out of a cell “you thought had kept you safe.” Though Olsen offers reassurance in her lyrics, the piano melody gives the song a bittersweet twist. As the drums kick in and a brooding sax solo gives way to a howling electric organ, “Nothing Free” feels like a direct link between the high glamor of 2019’s All Mirrors and the rootsier sensibilities of Big Time.
Lavish instrumental arrangements brought panoramic scope to All Mirrors and My Woman, but “Time Bandits” and “Holding On” falter under similar flourishes. The drums on “Time Bandits” clash with the old-school atmosphere, and a tinny trumpet interlude feels out of place, as if the player had wandered over from another session. On “Holding On,” the flashy, high-register guitar solos are a magpie-like distraction from the tangled string section. Olsen’s flustered yelp burns with unfulfilled desire, but her vocal melody never quite matches her lyrics’ search for deliverance.
The varied styles of Olsen’s recent work—dramatic, delicate, raw—have reflected her own process of growth, leading to the revelation that “you can wake up one day and really be a very different person.” As a result, she embraced a “freer, more straightforward” experience while making Big Time: a sense of relief you could hear reverberating through the music. With these outtakes, Olsen zooms out and reveals some of the rockier steps along her journey toward self-discovery.
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