Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is the sixth studio LP from Angel Olsen, Big Time.
In this pandemic-defined decade, one of the most often-heard phrases has been something along the lines of “time is meaningless.” Ostensibly, this platitude became normalized due to an inability to go anywhere or see anyone during lockdown. For Angel Olsen, whose stunning sixth studio album Big Time is out now, the last two years have also been ones of enormous, life-altering change, both pandemic-related and not.
There were stratospheric highs: recording with longtime acquaintance Sharon Van Etten (they shared the collaborative track “Like I Used To” in 2021), starting a short-lived pandemic relationship followed by meeting her now-partner Beau Thibodeaux and officially coming out as gay. There were also devastating lows: the pandemic relationship dissolved and Olsen’s adoptive parents died just a few weeks apart. Her father died only a few days after she came out to her family. The first time Olsen’s family met Thibodeaux was at his funeral.
The overlap of these events put Olsen, who had been adopted by her St. Louis foster family at age three, through the emotional wringer. Time, as a result, ceased to hold the same linear meaning for her, something she lays out in a recent interview with The New Yorker: “I’ve always had vivid dreams, but I think they happen more often when I’m processing stuff that I don’t understand,” she said. “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,” she said. “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.”
Olsen’s paradigm shift is front and center on Big Time, which is radiant, personal, sonically lush and reminiscent of an artist increasingly comfortable with themselves and what they are willing to do musically. Produced by Olsen and co-producer Jonathan Wilson (Father John Misty, Dawes), Big Time finds her pouring her joy and sorrow into 10 crisp, country-tinged songs that draw clear inspiration from genre staples like Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. Thematically, she is very much in love — the words “big time” reference the way she and Thibodeaux say “I love you big time” to each other, and Thibodeaux is credited as a co-writer on the lap steel-led title track. Elsewhere, on piano ballad closer “Chasing The Sun,” Olsen observes the big happiness that can come from everyday cohabitation moments: “Write a postcard to you / When you’re in the other room / I’m just writing to say that I can’t find my clothes / If you’re lookin’ for something to do.”
Simultaneously, Big Time is steeped in pain and loss: of the past, of her parents, of a place she once lived, of brief but meaningful romantic encounters. “I wanna go home / Go back to small things,” Olsen intones on the expansive “Go Home,” whose echoing vocals make it sound like Olsen is literally howling in an empty, moved-out-of space. “I don’t belong here / Nobody knows me / How can I go on? / With all those old dreams / I am the ghost now.”
By juxtaposing life’s non-linear, oft-contradicting gains and losses, Olsen has created her richest, most rewarding work with Big Time. There may not be a narrative arc — because life doesn’t work that way — but there are myriad learning moments. The dramatic “Through The Fires” swells with cinematic strings and gets at the heart of what it means to grow — what to take with you and what to let go: “I lost sight, then I made up my mind / To learn to release the dreams that had died / In spite of the sound of what I had heard / To recognize truth without any word.”
Across Olsen’s entire catalog, dating back to 2014’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness and leading up to 2020’s Whole New Mess, the onetime Bonnie Prince Billy backup singer has built an unbreakable reputation for writing visceral, poignant songs that are as intimate and beautiful as they are beguiling. Foundationally, Big Time is built with the sort of conviction Olsen has always displayed throughout her decade-long career. But it is easily the most joyful, while never forgetting to acknowledge what it took to get there.
Rachel Brodsky is a culture writer, critic and reporter living in Los Angeles. You can find her writing on music, TV, film, gender and comedy in outlets such as Stereogum, the LA Times, the Guardian, the Independent, Vulture, UPROXX, uDiscover Music, SPIN and plenty more.