If you watch Angel Olsen’s video for “Intern,” the first single from My Woman, you might be inclined to think she’s already veering off the course she set with her first two records. The clip — which also serves as a trailer for the new album, her first since 2014’s career-igniting Burn Your Fire for No Witness — shows few signs of the folksy trappings that have marked the erstwhile Bonnie “Prince” Billy backup singer’s solo work. Her signature blunt-cut baby bangs and acoustic guitar are nowhere in sight; instead, Olsen, who directed the video herself, dons a silver-tinsel wig as her woozy falsetto glides over the low, robotic moans of a mellotron. She’s clearly winking at a Ziggy Stardust–like glam-rock transformation: Perhaps weary of turning on the music industry’s hamster wheel, she sigh-sings, “Still gotta wake up and be someone,” as if putting out another album after achieving critical-darling status was the last thing in the world she wanted to do.
The next track Olsen released, however — a fiery, fed-up number called “Shut Up Kiss Me” — returns to hallmarks of her earlier output: the ragged guitar; the stomping percussion; the open-throated wail that carried her psych-folk-indebted 2012 breakout, Half Way Home; the lyrics (her wry humor and enigmatic imagery remain unmistakable). But don’t get too comfortable. The album really is unlike anything Olsen has done before, and the series of about-faces snaps our attention to this fact.
My Woman gleefully immerses us in contradictions, threading its way, sometimes messily, through thematic and stylistic tensions. Olsen’s voice, an airy amalgam of Stevie Nicks’s quiver and Hope Sandoval’s cloudy clarion, dovetails with the album’s formal templates: Seventies pop-rock and watery Nineties reverb. The uptempo trifecta of “Shut Up Kiss Me,” “Give It Up,” and “Not Gonna Kill You” on the album’s first half (all jaded scorn in a grungy, alt-rock rumble) contrasts with the back end’s lush, gleaming “Those Were the Days,” which sinks down into Olsen’s memories and offers a rare glimpse of inner contentment. And if the early songs tend to parse the world without, Olsen turns inward beginning with the hushed “Heart Shaped Face,” investigating her frustrations and refusing to leave any of them behind. Much of her output has documented a pervasive sense of longing, with Olsen unable to let go of the people, things, and ideas on which she’s expended so much emotional labor; on My Woman, she creates a fuller, more dynamic way to eulogize them.
That’s never more evident than on “Sister” and “Woman,” a pair of seven-plus-minute jammers that anchor the second half’s spaciness. Emily Elhaj’s patient bassline and the shifting strings of “Woman” meander toward Olsen’s sharp and embittered offering: “I could still breathe for you/Open up and scream for you,” she chides, before the track builds to a frayed, bluesy guitar solo layered with distant howls. Likewise, “Sister” opens up from twangy shuffle to buoyant riffs, with guest guitarist Seth Kauffman augmenting Stewart Bronaugh’s strums. Lyrically, Olsen tangles herself in irreconcilable differences, as when she slurs, “I want to live life/I want to die…right next to you” or repeats the couplet, “Oh, I never thought I’d change/All my life I thought I’d change.” The sister she addresses here seems to be not a discrete sibling but another side of herself — a hint at transformation still unrealized.
Olsen has always been hesitant in interviews to associate herself with feminism, or any political movement. (“Just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean that every work I make is a feminist statement,” she once told W.) But in her many moments of duality — the flights from cheekiness to vitriol to sheer spite (and back) that somehow manage to cohere — Olsen reveals her skill for confronting the experience women often have of being pigeonholed. Whether her refusal of tidiness is an indulgence or a parody or (most likely) something in between, Olsen purposely guards her motives, seeming almost annoyed that they might influence how her work is received. So, like the intern plugging away until someone notices her hard work, she grits her teeth, digs into her ambiguities, and waits for the rest of us to catch up.