Angel Olsen review – clashing emotions and uneasy singalongs

O2 Academy Brixton, London
The Americana singer’s poppish album Big Time dominates the set but darker feelings and grief-stricken impulses are also at play

Angel Olsen is telling Brixton Academy about a chance encounter earlier in the day with an old woman called Doris. The pair apparently got chatting while the musician was quietly taking in the sights of London from a park bench, and as fate would have it, Doris happened to be a gifted songwriter with a notebook to hand. Naturally they ended up penning a special little “ditty” for tonight’s show, which she is now going to play live for the very first time. The room hushes in anticipation. Then, she performs her biggest hit Shut Up Kiss Me. By now, this mildly amusing bit is a well-ingrained part ofOlsen’s live repertoire, serving as a mechanism to bring some newness to a song she’s steadily grown apart from.

The token inclusion of Shut Up Kiss Me aside, the setlist is predominantly skewed towards her most recent album Big Time, save for a middle section that whizzes through a couple of tracks each from 2016’s My Woman and 2019’s All Mirrors. The latter section is particularly arresting; the stage plunging into near darkness as Olsen and band become backlit silhouettes. Both Lark and All Mirrors rise from a soft murmur to an uneasy tangle of discordant strings and grinding synthesisers, her voice cracking into a fractured howl.

As well as haunted love songs to absent figures, many of Big Time’s songs feel like tender farewells to an older self. Flecked with Americana and country influences, Big Time is perhaps her most immediate set, despite the intense transformations that informed it. Shortly after Olsen told her parents she was queer, both died within just a few weeks of each other, and Big Time elegantly makes sense of the extreme shift in perspective that takes place while passing through grief. “I am the ghost now,” she sings on Go Home, “living those old scenes.” Chasing the Sun, Big Time’s vaguely uplifting resolution is conspicuously missing from the show.

A neat tying-up of loose ends never arrives. Instead, Olsen finishes with two covers: Slowin’ Down Love by outsider folk artist Tucker Zimmerman, and a rousing final rendition of Harry Nilsson’s Without You. Though Olsen hits some of the booming low notes with Smack The Pony-esque comedic gusto, her closing teeters carefully between full-blown karaoke, and something more tattered and broken; an outpouring of intense, guttural grief that has somehow found itself adopted as a cheerful singalong. This uneasy contradiction may well be something that Olsen also feels deeply as an artist, and it makes for an intriguing – if slightly unsatisfying – ending. You suspect that’s precisely the point.

El Hunt

The GuardianTramp

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