Big Time by Angel Olsen


I met The Second Most Pedantic Person In The World (TSMPPITW) today for coffee, croissant and chaff. Being TSMPPITW, he would point out that I actually had a bacon sandwich, but that would deny the alliterative form of that sentence. Anyway, when my sandwich arrived it was on white bread. I said “Sorry but I asked for brown bread”. The waitress was perfectly charming and soon brought me the correct order. TSMPPITW asked me why I had said “sorry”, when I hadn’t done anything wrong. I explained that I wasn’t actually sorry but that the word was a shorthand for saying “I’m not angry about this but I think there’s been a mistake here”. This led to an interesting chat with TSMPPITW about the times when we say “sorry” even when we’ve done nothing wrong.

There are lots of situations when I apologise. Mostly it’s when I’ve made a mistake but there are other times such as when I recently spoke to a receptionist at the GP surgery after the laboratory had lost my specimen or yesterday when I was on the phone to a distressed caller, and I couldn’t hear what he said. Why do I do this? Is it that I simply want other people to think I’m a nice guy? Or do I have low self-esteem and think I’m constantly in the wrong? Or do I want every situation to run perfectly and become regretful when things don’t work out exactly as I would like? Or is it when I’m not sure what to say? Or is it simply a habit? All of these? Some of these? None of these?

Is it a good thing to portray self-confidence? At a recent training session, one of the trainees congratulated me for not projecting myself as an expert but making it clear that everyone had something to learn, including me. Not everyone understands self-effacement and it can be interpreted as weakness. However, I feel that projecting vulnerability protects me from criticism: there’s no point somebody else telling me how rubbish I am, when it’s clear from what I say, that I know that anyway. Continual apologising does not reflect self-confidence, but is that an asset or a flaw?

When is it “correct” to apologise? The answer probably includes times when I’ve hurt someone’s feelings, said or done something offensive, been disrespectful, or violated someone’s boundaries.

When is it “wrong” to apologise? I guess there’s no need to apologise for things I didn’t do, things I can’t control, and things other people do. There’s no need to apologise for asking a question, my appearance, my feelings, not having all the answers and not responding immediately.

Sorry if you were hoping to read about Angel Olsen’s album and had to wade through all that bit first.

The first words on Angel Olsen’s sixth album, “Big Time” are “I can’t say that I’m sorry when I don’t feel so wrong anymore. I can’t tell you I’m tryin’ when there’s nothin’ left here to try for.”All The Good Times” is a classic breakup song: the singer is not going to apologise for not being able to connect with her ex, who has never learned how to “let someone in“. The line “If you’ve ever been open, there’s no way of knowin'” is a reflection of the resistance that she encountered leading inevitably to the end of the relationship.

Angel Olsen was born in 1987 in St. Louis, Missouri. At the age of three, she was adopted by a foster family that had cared for her since shortly after her birth. “My dad had three sons in his first marriage. And then my mom had a son and a daughter in her first marriage. Then they met, fell in love, and had two kids. And then my mom became a foster parent while she also raised the kids at home. She adopted my brother, and then later, down the line, me.

In 2021, her adoptive mother and father died two months apart (her mother, from heart failure, at age seventy-eight; her father, in his sleep, at eighty-nine), shortly after she told them that she was gay. A few weeks after her mother’s funeral, she began recording her sixth album, “Big Time”, in producer Jonathan Wilson’s studio.

When she first got to the studio, she told her producer that she had not prepared anything with her backing band. “I was, like, my parents died . . . Fuck it. Everyone was like, ‘You could just not do it and postpone, or you could make a digital record’, and I thought, I’m just going to do it and see. If it’s really hard, then I’ll stop.” The bassist Emily Elhaj, who plays on “Big Time,” has known Angel Olsen since around 2007, and they’ve been recording together for about a decade. She said “I’ve never gone into the studio with her without rehearsing. I had no idea what to expect.

The sound of this album is wonderful. The artists that spring to mind when I hear this are Lucinda Williams, kd lang and Steve Earle. The music appears to be rooted in country but listening to this album is not like listening to Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris or The Flying Burrito Brothers. A steel guitar appears on most tracks but horns, strings and electric guitar are also prominent. She described the way the sound evolved like this: “Essentially what I told everyone was, ‘I don’t need to turn a pedal steel on its head here,’ I just want to hear, ‘What would the Neil Young backing band do, if they reeled it in a little bit?’” The album has been mixed with Angel Olsen’s vocals to the fore, so close that it’s as if she’s in the room with you.

Beau Thibodeaux is credited as a co-writer on the title track from “Big Time,” a sunny song that celebrates a moment of happiness. “It was a big decision to write a song with Beau and have them in my videos. This person is really special to me.” In April, 2021, Olsen posted a series of pictures of Beau Thibodeaux on Instagram, with the caption “My beau, I’m gay.” It was a spontaneous decision for Olsen to share the nature of her relationship with her fans. The video for “Big Time” is based loosely on a dream that Angel Olsen had the night she found out that her mother had died.

Through the Fires” is about the end of her first queer relationship, (before Beau Thibodeaux) which ended when the person told her that they felt the relationship had started out of convenience during the pandemic. The song is a redemption story in which she sings readily about making the sacrifice to let go of the pain that was preventing her from being her healthiest self. “Then I moved into the feeling I found, and the feeling I found showed me how I could lose to love, without boundary”. She recognises that she needs to let go, without apology, in order to move on. Angel Olsen’s voice on this song is ethereal and a lush string orchestration amplifies the feelings of a transformation into a happier person.

Dream Thing” is one of many songs on the album that reference a dream state. “I’ve always had vivid dreams, but I think they happen more often when I’m processing stuff that I don’t understand. I kept having these dreams about time travel, and life just felt like time travel—losing my parents, going through the pandemic. Time expanded in a different way for me. I wasn’t the same. I lost a lot of friendships and couldn’t relate to people in the same way. I really am irreversibly changed. I am a very different person than I was in 2020. I’m always me. But I did lose. And I went forward, alone, with my experience.” 

Go Home,” is a letter to herself about how she can’t pretend to know what anything is. She realises that she can only change the world by changing the way she looks at her life. She needs to inspire others to do the same, to live the experience and be able to be corrected and humbled by others.

“I enunciated differently on “All The Flowers” and got into holding the words out. I enjoyed singing in a different way. I wanted to do something that was really simple and minimal instrumentally, and I think that made me sing more delicately around certain words.” With a joyous orchestra of violins, a viola, a cello and a harpsichord surrounding her, Angel Olsen sings, her voice gentle and flickering, of retrospect, and her endless reckoning with the act of living. “I’ve been spending too much time searching in vain to find the only reason, the only reason to be alive, to try to be somebody, to be someday, to be alive and with another.” This search for transformation invokes a deep emotional response.

“Big Time” presents a barely conscious worry that no longer being vulnerable means no longer feeling things as profoundly. By not apologising for things that she hasn’t done wrong, will the intensity in her life diminish and, if so, is that a good or bad thing? There is terror in being happy and unable to remember the hurt. “Big Time” is emotionally devastating and when she confronts traumas, can the depth of emotion stand alongside the joy she feels in being alive and the love she holds for others? The devastation is not without gestures of romantic and personal euphoria. She’s documenting how joyful it is simply to be, to feel, to emote and to exist and for it all to make some sort of sense.

She says “I like driving aimlessly, and I like getting lost, but I don’t like small talk. That’s not the kind of lost I’m looking for.” And she’s not apologising for the way she is, either.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

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