Angel Olsen tells the truth, Post Malone bemoans his fame – the week’s best albums
Angel Olsen, Big Time ★★★★★
Angel Olsen’s 2017 compilation album, Phases, was aptly named. The 35-year-old American singer-songwriter has embraced a range of styles over her 12-year recording career, including folk, lush dream-pop redolent of Mazzy Star, fuzzy indie and shiny mainstream fare.
Her sixth album, Big Time, lands somewhere else again: country music. And it marks a quantum leap forward. Big Time is a sophisticated and delicate record that is packed with the kind of sonic details and raw emotion that should tempt listeners to return time and again. Despite only being in her mid-thirties, Big Time sounds like the album of Olsen’s life.
Here’s why. It was recorded in the wake of a series of seismic, life-changing jolts for the Missouri-born singer. In April 2021, Olsen came out as gay. Telling her parents was a hurdle she had been avoiding for some time. Three days later, her father died; it was at his funeral that Olsen introduced her partner to her family. Weeks later, her mother died too. Three weeks after the latter’s funeral, Olsen entered the studio. Big Time – so called because it reflects such a big time in her life – deals with love and grief, joy and loss, identity and new realities.
It opens with a sense of quiet release. Its first track, the tender ballad All The Good Times, begins with the words, “I can’t say that I’m sorry/ When I don’t feel so wrong any more.” The strains of a lap steel guitar and muted horns weave around Olsen’s sublime voice, which sounds more resolute than usual. At the two-and-a-half-minute mark, it takes an unexpected turn: organ and horns kick in and the bass gets a little funky. You’re suddenly taken in a gently triumphant Muscle Shoals-like direction, the subtle new elements sprinkling the track with the sass of Ella Washington or Candi Staton. The next song, Big Time, is a love song co-written with her partner. It’s about sunshine through the curtains, coffee and good morning kisses – a song as pure and warm as the sunbeams it references.
But there’s deep grief here too. This Is How It Works is about being so sad that you can’t find the words; being lost in loss as a result of the people who know you best – people who are aware of your present, your past and “how it’s been” – no longer being around. Olsen’s voice sounds abraded and worn when she sings, “I’m so tired of telling you/ It’s a hard time again”. The very un-country Go Home continues this theme. When Olsen tells us that she wants to “go home, back to small things”, her ghostly vocals bring to mind PJ Harvey. “Nobody knows me,” she sings over a funereal drumbeat and parping, discordant horns. There is an intensity and sincerity to this music that gives it directness and punch, as if you had been invited into her private swirl.
This is country music but not as we know it. Aware of this, Olsen has been toying with our expectations in press ads for Big Time. It’s “not country, but it’s not not country,” reads one ad. Another – addressing her previous fringed hairstyle – says, “Out with the bangs. In with the twangs”. Whatever Big Time’s genre, it is a mature and accomplished album; a requiem yet also a quiet celebration. It’s probably the most honest album you’ll hear all year. James Hall
Michael Head & the Red Elastic Band, Dear Scott ★★☆☆☆
Dear Scott is an album that can be evaluated by its cover. Framed by the glow of a lone spotlight, dressed in boots, jeans and T-shirt, Michael Head strums an acoustic guitar while perched on one knee. Never mind the backing of the Red Plastic Band, this is a unilateral vision from someone who takes to the stage in whatever clothes he stepped into that morning. Probably you could call him an everyman. “If anybody asks you what you’re playing now,” he sings on the lilting Grace and Eddie, “just say ragtime, country blues and original songs”. That sounds about right.
As a performer who made his bones in the 1980s with the indie group The Pale Fountains, Michael Head knows his way around a song. Certainly, amid an LP that is usually a little too samey, the airborne melodies of Fluke, the patient hum of The Grass and the springtime breeze of American Kid are capable compositions.
What Head can’t do, however, is deliver material in a way that serves to showcase his talents to anything like their best effect. Shackled by its own turgid competency, Dear Scott fizzes with all the life of a demo tape recorded in a local community hall double-booked with a bingo night. No matter how loud you turn up the volume, it still sounds quiet. It sounds uncomfortably naked, too.
The accompaniment of a band who neither rock nor roll, with nowhere to hide the indistinct flatness of Head’s voice, not to mention his hopeless phrasing, renders entire tracks joyless and stark. As for why the album concludes with a plinky-plop piano piece buried beneath lashings of tuneless violins – that’s anyone’s guess. Dear Scott sounds like the work of an amateur. It’s a very long hour indeed. Ian Winwood
Post Malone, Twelve Carat Toothache ★★★★☆
Few artists capture the sound of this cultural era quite like Post Malone. Ever since 2015, when his debut single White Iverson made Austin Post a household name, the cowboy-boot-wearing, face-tattooed 26-year-old has been pushing genre-bending music, as if he were a manifestation the Gen-Z belief that identity is anything but fixed.
As comfortable in a frilled skirt befitting a Mormon grandmother as he is in impeccable tailoring, Post’s fusion of country and hip hop has earned him billions of streams, appealing both to kids and twenty-something Tik Tokkers. He is a remarkably versatile artist: his recent work includes a collaboration with Ozzy Osbourne and Disney’s Chip ’n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers theme.
His slick fourth album, Twelve Carat Toothache, reasserts Post’s status as one of the biggest male artists in the world, challenged only by Drake, Ed Sheeran and The Weeknd. The latter brings his ’80s flavour to the catchy, synth-driven One Right Now towards the end of this 14-track album, a collaboration indicative of precisely the kind of lightly subversive pop that dominates the US charts. The guitar-led third track, Lemon Tree, is a magnificent showcase for Post’s Parton-worthy warbling, while Insane is his valiant take on Travis Scott-inspired trap, and I Like You (featuring Doja Cat) is a Justin Bieber-esque, radio-ready RnB banger.
As one would expect from a mega-star, the thematic preoccupation of this record is fame. Although Wasting Angels is predictable, with talk of chains, private jets and being “sane before the fame”, Love/Hate Letter to Alcohol packs a serious gut-punch, with soaring cinematic production and a disarmingly honest exploration of alcoholism: “You’re the reason why I got my ass kicked/ But you’re the only way to drown my sadness”. The poppy, crowd-pleaser Wrapped Around My Finger, meanwhile, is sure to be as inescapable as Post’s previous hits, Circles and Sunflowers.
Despite what the polished sonics might suggest, Twelve Carat Toothache is an ambitious record with real range, proving that Post has found his groove as America’s kaleidoscopic king of new-era pop. However, while these songs may top the charts, they don’t entirely make their mark. Twelve Carat Toothache is music for right now, rather than a record for the ages. Kathleen Johnston