Her face may be hard to read, but the North Carolina-based artist's vocal told the crowd in London everything they needed to know.
“I’m still learning about myself day by day,” Angel Olsen asserts, two thirds of the way through tonight’s set. “I only know myself through you,” she continues, adding with a laugh, “That’s heavy, isn’t it? That pretty fucked up.” Regardless, this statement serves as a decent introduction to the complex ideas driving her third album.
Released in September, ‘My Woman’ explores identity, the refraction of identity within relationships and – on a broader level – our capacity to connect with others. It is, by turns, heartbreaking, joyous, cathartic and unapologetically confident, and finds Olsen raising the bar she already set vertiginously high with 2014’s ‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’.
This evening, she treats Koko to nine out of ten tracks from it, accompanied by two guitarists, a drummer and a keyboardist/backing vocalist, all dressed like country music matinee idols, in matching blue-grey suits and bolo ties.
Eyes narrowed in mock-suspicion at an errant wolf-whistle emanating from the stalls, Olsen launches straight into the set-opener without a hello. Like many tracks tonight, ‘Never Be Mine’ begins with just Olsen’s vocals and guitar, before the other members of the band sensitively flesh-out the torch song’s widescreen arrangement.
The pace continues with the fuzzy ‘Hi-Five’ and ‘My Woman”s glammy lead single ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’, before it drops during country-tinged ballad ‘Lights Out’ from ‘BYFFNW’, on which Paul Sukeena’s yawning slide guitar notes compliment the swooning vocal.
Astonishing as Olsen’s voice is on record, nothing can quite prepare you for witnessing it live. During subdued sections of songs, you can practically hear the audience gawping in awe.
Throughout, she skilfully plays with dynamics to wring maximum impact from her compositions. At the beginning of her exquisite rendition of ‘Sister’, she sounds tremulous and beaten-down; by the climax her vibrato tones soar so powerfully and effortlessly you’re convinced they could reach the rafters without amplification.
If Olsen’s voice is a vehicle for naked emotion, her face remains impressively inscrutable during songs, bar the occasional furrowed brow. Yet between songs, she’s in good spirits, speculating about Koko’s ghosts, demanding 50 bucks per request, and jokingly suggesting we all head to church together post-gig.
A haunting version of ‘Intern’ in the encore eliminates any need for the latter, with its languid organ chords and almost hymnal harmonies, and Olsen concludes with ‘Woman’, a spellbinding sprawl which addresses the failure to connect. Conversely, she connects deeply with everyone present, as she has all night.