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#23: Angel Olsen - Lark
this is probably not the only time i'll mention this, but the 2010's were the decade where i lost almost all interest in the critical darling American indie rock/folk scene i used to put a lot of mental effort and energy into trying to follow in the previous decade. i honestly didn't feel like there was anything more there for me. most of this past decade, i would frequently revisit an ongoing internal fight with myself over trying to find something that still spoke to me at all within the what's left of the whole ecosystem of indie rock music. Angel Olsen was one of the few new indie songwriters who broke in the 2010's that i actually felt a genuine spark of something from. there is an urgency and distress to her voice that reached me when a lot of stuff didn't... even when a lot of her song structures and arrangements didn't really rock the boat in any particular way.
Angel Olsen's breakout album was 2014's Burn Your Fire For No Witness, which opens with a cute little lo-fi track that i like named "Unfucktheworld" before bouncing around a few different styles and eventually settling on a bunch of slower songs at the end. But the first one i heard was the slightly less adventurous/more full band-oriented My Woman from 2016. on that album in particular, Olsen is a very solid songwriter and a great performer and the songs are very well-arranged... but there's very little that feels new or exciting there outside of her voice. the reference points for her first three solo albums come very much from rock, folk, and country music of the 60's and 70's... very old, well-worn musical tropes by this point (to put it lightly). she definitely works from within a particular framework for her songs without jumping too far outside of that. and she does a good job with it. My Woman is a very polished album... but it's really, really not anything you haven't heard before. and that's really the story of so much indie rock in the 2010's for me.
that's why something felt genuinely amiss when i watched the video premiere for her track "Lark" this year. "Lark" is the opening track of her album from this year's All Mirrors and feels like a pretty strong statement of intent. the track, at its core, is still recognizably an Angel Olsen song. the same straightforward guitar chords are there, and the lyrics are a pretty simple, if gutting, story of a romantic relationship completely gone awry. but everything else is far more ambitious and strange - more like something you'd hear on a Radiohead album, especially in how seems to musically wear all of its themes on the surface in a more fully-realized way. i'm sure her songwriting/arrangement collaboration with electronic producer/multi-instrumentalist Ben Babbitt for this entire album is part of that (hi Ben! i know you're probably reading this). also Jherek Bischoff's string arrangement on "Lark" is like a thick layer of fog on top of what in someone else's hands might be a far more conventional song, obscuring and drastically heightening all of the uncertainty and anxiety you can feel from her voice. when the song drops into a thunderous refrain for the first time around 80 seconds in, a wash of reverb envelops her voice and she sounds like she's belting her lyrics from the mountaintops (which she literally is in the video). within the first two minutes, we're in a far more alien and intense place than anything on any of her previous albums.
speaking of Angel Olsen's voice: what separates Angel Olsen from a lot of other critically-hyped mid-tier success indie songwriters for me is she really feels like she absolutely believes every single word that she's singing. she is very much a "what you see is what you get" type of performer. she's not the type to easily or adeptly put on another kind of mask. and that's why it's all pretty funny to me, because she often seems to go for various different high-concept approaches and concepts in her music videos. the 2010's is the decade of the pop performer as all-encompassing media figure who lives many different lives, and i have no doubts that indie songwriters who want to have any place in that ecosystem have to find their own ways to keep up within the limited amount of budget and resources they have. and i imagine some of her videos have attracted more fans to her (her widely-viewed video for "Shut Up Kiss Me" is how i discovered her music). but most of her videos tend to fall pretty flat for me because a) they generally feel like they consist of one idea that isn't expounded upon much, and b) i don't think she knows how to a put on a mask long enough to convincingly sell a role. that's not really unusual for the less budgeted world of indie music, but it's hard to come away thinking she's anyone but Angel Olsen.
and that's alright to me. in a decade where a lot of performers, and really just the music industry in general, were at an all-time high with bullshitting their audiences (a trend which in no way excluded indie music), her directness is still refreshing. she does feel like she's hinging on your every breath as a listener. her voice can often be powerful like in "Shut Up Kiss Me", but more often it's strained and upset, and confused... and sometimes more gentle. and you feel her channeling all those emotions from very deeply within herself. and that's honestly why i've always thought her packaging as a Prestige Artist in the often more quirky and tongue-in-cheek world of indie rock is a bit odd at times. there is all this deep angst that trembles throughout her voice that often doesn't match with the way she's presented. Angel Olsen is not Mitski: she's not a super clever performer. sometimes i also feel like doesn't ever exactly know how to package herself as a performer, but somehow that kind of adds to the tension that makes her music feel more urgent and unstable and exciting. she's a lot of raw nerves and frayed, jagged ends just waiting to surface but never really able to. she carries the vibe of an everyday person who is just about to enter middle age and already has several broken dreams she's carrying with her - not of a hyper-composed, finely curated, ultra-savvy artist.
and yet what wasn't really able to surface before seems to come out far more within "Lark", and all at once. the song musically climbs and falls into different fragments of melody that alternate between tenderness, righteous anger, and pure horror throughout its over six minute length. they never seem to really resolve or coalesce around a particular structure. the music video begins with her immediately walking out of a clearly violent argument with her boyfriend, and you can see bruises and scratches on her chest. the presence of mountains (i'm imagining this was filmed in Asheville, North Carolina where she lives) feel intensely isolating as she wanders out alone into the night, bruised and battered. at various points in the video she seems to emerge triumphant among the thick woods, but it's short lived and nothing actually gets resolved. while the video still suffers like a lot of her others from not being particularly coherent, the imagery and mood of it is very clear. there's a brief image towards the end of a seeming flashback of her with her head and her hands at home, totally exhausted as a seemingly supportive arm reaches out to her, only for her to jerk her arm away abruptly in fear and anger. the point is there's no comfort here - it's all bullshit and lies.
if i can make an incredibly heavy-handed comparison: this track feels very much like America in 2019 - there's so much tension that never really goes anywhere but kind of just builds and builds into a gradually unfolding, slowly escalating nightmare. and there's really no escape from it - everything joins from a bunch of disparate threads and comes to the surface all at once in a disorienting and deeply disturbing jumble. there are no more new dreams to dream anymore, just the complete dissolution and destruction of all of our existing ones. and that echoes a lot of what she carries through her voice when she screams "what about my dreams?" in the final spike of intensity lined by electric guitar towards the end of the track, just as everything in the song seems like it has run out of steam... as if she's having one final flare-up of anger that she had to get in before collapsing into total exhaustion. she has all the internal dilemmas of a millennial who was raised expecting to come into a very different world than the one she ended up in. it's what Slavoj Zizek might call "wrong dreams" - the inability to recognize that what she thought she wanted was always going to end in disaster. and so she's in the midst having a desperate hysterical breakdown as she realizes just how deeply she was invested in something that was actually always a nightmare. after this, the track actually ends far more discordant and frayed than it began. this song is very much about a relationship that's gone extremely sour, but the fact that so much is left unsaid and the music carries the mood so heavily leaves it open to a lot of other kinds of interpretations.
"Lark" is a truly fucking exhausting song. there's nothing particularly fun or clever here. it's like slogging uphill through the mud in an intense rainstorm as hard as you can. but it's also extremely cathartic in a way a lot of music of the last decade wasn't. maybe it's a relief that the rest of All Mirrors is mostly not like that, but the rest of All Mirrors also doesn't hit quite as hard as "Lark" because of that.
i have to admit i haven't revisited All Mirrors much since it came out, but i also don't think i really ever absorbed it that much the first place. it's funny, because this album is only from a handful of months ago... and i saw it get a brief time in the sun with lots of praise before quickly fading into the background. that's not uncommon for any album these days, where things have to be immediate and grab your attention right away. but i didn't see it appear on too many best of the year lists this year in spite of all the praise either. a lot of critics seemed to forget about it pretty quickly.
and maybe part of that reason is i do think there is something a little more quietly disruptive about this album. it's a very musically ambiguous album - it doesn't resolve in a clear or easy way, and it's musically dense and full of parallels to other things, and it doesn't fall back on as many cutesy references to old music of the 60's and 70's as her previous work did. i think it can be hard for a lot of critics to make something out of that, because it seemingly came from left-field for an artist who seemed pretty set on staying in on a typical indie folk/rock path (an increasingly conservative and restrictive genre). but as usual, critics are being unimaginative and wrong.
to me, "Lark" points out a future direction for indie music - defined by more open ambiguity, anxiety, and ambition. it feels like it's trying to drag indie rock, with all its baggage and increasingly conservative and regressive tendencies, kicking and screaming into a newer and more interesting place. whether indie rock really follows behind that is maybe not the interesting question. how will artists who come from that ecosystem, possibly realizing it's a broken and regressive place, take more of a leap into the unknown and experiment far more in order to stay alive and relevant? that's the interesting question to me. and i'm happy to see Angel Olsen, of all people, doing that here and on All Mirrors in general. maybe this will be a one-off, or maybe it'll be a longer-term shift for her - but i definitely don't think this mood will be a dead end for indie music in general in the next 10 years.