While not exactly a kiss of death, the “indie darling” label doesn’t do bands or performers many favors. It helps the tiniest little bit with setting expectations for the completely uninitiated fan, but the phrase is also trite, demeaning, and lazy, requiring no more effort on a writer’s part than to remember the phrase exists. It’s like patting a performer on the head and saying “Good for you” after listening to a record once and assuming you’ve digested it.
What a bummer, then, that it can also be so sticky and consequential, and dictate how a band or performer and their albums are discussed. It equates them with polite woodland creatures or part-time friendships long forgotten, not serious artists demanding serious consideration (or, at least, more serious consideration than tossed-off faint praise).
Search “Angel Olsen indie darling” and you’ll see what I mean.
Modifiers such as “lo-fi” or “folk” are usually added in her case, but time and again one finds the phrase attached to her name. Inadequate for most bands and singers, for Olsen in particular it makes no sense at all. She’s a force of nature, a vocal powerhouse with brutal and incisive writing chops, and her 2014 record Burn Your Fire for No Witnesses was a revelatory release. As exciting for what it contained as for what it hinted at, the record wasn’t as good—couldn’t be as good—as what it promised would come next, so long as Olsen outpaced that “indie darling” mislabeling and continued to develop her raging wildfire potential in her own time, on her own terms.
And I got good news, friends: has she ever succeeded on that last point.
It’d be too much to say that Olsen’s new release, My Woman, cashes in on every ounce of her capability as a writer and performer, but at certain moments on initial listens it feels that way.
Some of the songs are a bit too loose, is all, and the album’s momentum a bit uncontrolled. Importantly, though, these imperfections sprout from Olsen’s growth away from the roads she traveled to arrive at this moment, and they ultimately do little to hold back the record overall as a cohesive work.
What stands out most with these ten songs is how willing Olsen and her band appear to be to show off their influences and embrace more traditional song structures, however stretched and modified. The performances on My Woman feel unafraid, showcasing a band and a singer getting down in the groove with different genres while taking obvious inspiration from their artistic heroes. In this way, Olsen and her band have hit on a key detail too many performers miss in the quest to be “original”: adhering to tradition can actually be liberating, and though the players here morph and refract these soul songs, torch songs, pop songs, and rockers to Olsen’s particular purpose, every single song has an antecedent it points to, and a tradition that it celebrates.
It’s not hard to hear the Motown influence on “Never Be Mine,” nor the ‘80s college rock on “Give It Up.” Olsen channels Grace Slick through the raging conclusion of “Not Gonna Kill You”, though earlier you could have sworn she was doing a riff on Gwen Stefani in “Shut Up Kiss Me.” In the four songs and 25 minutes it takes the record to progress from “Heart Shaped Face” through “Woman,” everything from bluesy vocal fireworks to soul smoothness to space pop to, in the album’s climactic musical explosion towards the end of “Sister,” full-band psych-rock jamming takes a turn on center stage. The players play, the singer sings, and the songs live and breathe, content to be what they are, as they are.
There is no unnecessary precociousness, nothing precious, and there are no throw-away tracks padding things out. The record as a whole is just weird enough to show that Olsen and her band are past the point of caring about outside factors concerning their work, and much more concerned with keeping a listener’s focus on that work itself.
On Angel Olsen’s My Woman, we hear a challenge leveled, and, often enough to cause further forward-looking palpitations, moments of complete and utter transcendence.
These are delivered without a smirk or sideways glance, they are the reason for the record, and they do not disappoint. It should be a fun-ass ride seeing where Olsen and her crew go from here, but one thing is certain: with My Woman now in her discography, no one has any business referring to her as an “indie darling” ever again.