Angel Olsen’s “Phases” sends listeners through cycles of love and longing set against hypnotizing guitar chords.
At first listen, the album sounds like a random mix of songs without any rhyme or reason. The minimal instrumental backgrounds on some tracks and vocals that stray outside of Olsen’s signature emotion-heavy singing disorient the listener temporarily.
However, “Phases” is a collection of the artist’s B-sides, demos and covers. “Phases” showcases Olsen in a new light through songs that simultaneously test her boundaries and show a more bare-bones side of the singer.
The opening track to the album, “Fly On Your Wall,” eases listeners into the album with a familiar sounding song; the gradually growing emotion in her voice echoes her recent work. But the simple guitar chord and drum beats foreshadow the more simplistic songs to come.
“Special,” the next track, is a seven-minute spiraling and psychedelic tune that contrasts her crooning vocals with twangy guitar reverb. Both “Special” and “Fly On Your Wall” are from the recording sessions for her 2016 album “My Woman” – apparent from their similar musical aesthetics. With its powerful energy, “Special” features the typical full-bodiedness of songs from her 2016 album “My Woman.”
Olsen’s vocals, which seem to have more affliction, are the star of another single “Sans,” contrasting with its minimal guitar strumming. In the song, she sings, “Wish it were just easy as just picking up the phone,” over a smooth melody.
However, the energy of “Sans” is a departure from the next track on the album “Sweet Dreams,” a punchy, movement-inducing tune. Strong-bodied guitar and fast drums help Olsen’s crisp vocals gain momentum, adding to the potency of her words. She wails the word “alone” over and over again, evoking sentimental energy in the middle of it all.
Olsen also takes on one of Roky Erickson’s singles, “For You (I’d Do Anything)” The graininess of the home-recorded audio adds extra depth to the song, making it seem more personal. Olsen’s warm vocals and catchy refrain – “For you/ I’d do anything for you/ For you / There ain’t nothing I wouldn’t do/ For you” – makes the listener feel as if they have stumbled upon a private moment for Olsen, an affectionate conversation that was only meant for one or two people to hear.
While the album is an enticing opportunity to peer into Olsen’s winding and inspiring creative process, there are some points where it falters. Some of the songs, such as “Tougher Than the Rest” and “How Many Disasters,” evoke slightly different levels of passion due to the different qualities of Olsen’s voice.
Despite the vocal differences between the two songs, however, they end up sounding a bit too similar due to a simplistic guitar chord that is each song’s only instrumental. Having multiple songs with minimal instrumental backing is an honest touch that evokes powerful emotions – such as love – but too many similarities weaken the rawness of the songs.
Olsen closes the emotional album with “Endless Road,” a cover of Hoyt Axton’s song with American folk vibes that are reminiscent of a Johnny Cash tune. Lyrics like, “The road keeps saying, friend/ Come see what’s round the bend/ So is it any wonder that I roam?” speak to Olsen’s contemplation of both her past and her future. The simple song leaves a nostalgic and wistful feeling, causing the audience to wonder if Olsen felt the same nostalgic way about “Phases” while she laid out all of her past cards on the table.