If we are living in an age of loneliness, Angel Olsen might just be the perfect voice for its soundtrack. The American singer-songwriter first emerged six years ago as a backing singer for the alt-country overlord Bonnie Prince Billy, but over the course of two solo albums has proved her mettle as a darkly emotional, spectral-voiced folk troubadour.
Her acclaimed second record, 2014’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness, expanded her sound from crackly 40s vinyl to a more full-blooded indie rock attack, with her powerful voice and acutely honest lyrics about the pain of loss and the hard-won consolations of remaining true to yourself winning her a devoted legion of fans. She also came with a satisfyingly out-of-the-ordinary backstory; adopted at the age of three, Olsen grew up in St Louis, Missouri, with middle-aged parents and seven siblings much older than herself, giving her both a fascination with music from the past and a kind of observational otherness, a sense of looking at other people’s lives from a distance. Although only 29, if you only listened to her records, you would imagine a world-weary singer with decades of heartbreak and philosophising under her belt.
But with the release last month of her fabulous third album, My Woman, Olsen is kicking against all the lonesome country girl boxes she seemed to fall into so easily. Recording with an expanded backing band, she has introduced retro-style Stranger Things synths and 70s AOR wig-outs to her palette, and appeared in self-directed videos wearing a sparkly silver wig and hammily rollerskating around in a playsuit. Adding to the alt-country sacrilege, she has employed the help of producer Justin Raisen, who has shaped the punky pop attitude of Charli XCX and Sky Ferreira. It is hardly Dylan going electric, but nonetheless Olsen seems to have spent much of the promotional round of interviews for the album’s release railing against accusations that the queen of sad has gone shamelessly for the pop jugular.
What Olsen does seem to want is to challenge her audience rather than simply make them swoon. Before she comes on stage, the spotlights swoop in arcs, a showbiz staple that suggests an old-school soul revue is about to spring into life. Her five-piece backing band emerge dapperly dressed in matching grey suits and western bolo ties, against which Olsen, in a green, high-necked jumper and ankle-length skirt, with her hair piled messily on top of head, looks like she has come straight from the British Library. While the audience simmers in the pits, Olsen remains so cool that even swathed in winter woollens and clutching her guitar she never breaks into a sweat.
Not that there is anything underpowered about her performance. While she barely moves, her eyes fixed ahead in a poker-faced glare, she sings with incredible power, the notes soaring and dropping like an autumn wind. Olsen has a voice that reveals itself like a Russian doll: a soft, girlish whisper giving way to a stentorian roar, which in turn lifts into a soprano’s roof-raising cry. The highlight of this, and of My Woman, is the gorgeous Sister, where Olsen’s voice morphs from Hope Sandoval’s tender drawl to a Stevie Nicks-style swaying incantation of “All my life, I thought I’d change”.
It is such a versatile, commandingly theatrical voice, it’s a shame that the trills and slurs on her notes sometimes obscure her fantastic lyrics, and especially her humour. Yes, the word lonely pops up within two songs, a direct lift of Hank Williams’s I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry in the opening to Hi-Five, but Olsen also has a sharp way with a funny rhyming couplet. She sounds like Katharine Hepburn when she drops the best deadpan line of the year so far on Intern: “I don’t care what the papers say/ It’s just another intern with a resumé.”
Not that there is much laughing or even moving from her rapt audience, some of whom are, slightly terrifyingly, mouthing her lyrics silently back at her. Which is a shame, as she has plenty of grooves and head-shaking guitar licks, meatily powered out by her backing band. Olsen tries to break the ice with a few drawling jokes, but she can’t cut through the awe until the encore when, turning side-on to her keyboard, she sings: “I dare you to understand what makes me a woman.” You have to conclude: talent to burn.