Angel Olsen – Whelan’s, 2nd May

‘This is really what makes this concert so astonishing, the sense of free, almost combustible artistry, the coaxing sensuality coupled with a sense of boundary and mystery’ – Siobhán Kane on Angel Olsen’s Thursday night Whelan’s gig. The spare beauty of Angel Olsen‘s 2011 EP Strange Cacti and 2012’s Half Way Home is intense and focussed, resonating deeply, because the emotions expressed are so complicated, and true.

As Angel Olsen walks on to the stage, and lightly starts to play her guitar, time seems to stand still, and a special atmosphere starts to affect the crowd; there is no talking, only waves of appreciation that lap towards the stage.

Her guitar-playing is precise but fluid, minimal and affecting, but it is really her voice that is the greatest instrument; remarkable for its range and soulfulness, folding in subtle changes of key and sensibility. Sometimes her lips curl into a strange smile, as she relays stories of grief and loss – epic stories painted lightly, but with dark shades; stories of a conflicted kind of living, compelling, delivered in a kind of half-light.

This conflicted state infuses songs such as “Miranda” with a kind of miraculous richness, the narrative that wants to keep her shady “darling” at a distance, while still remembering a time when “I needed you more”, with the guitar chords bobbing along, keeping the story and song afloat.

At various turns Olsen remarks how “quiet” the audience is, while later telling us “you’ve got good juice here”, as she sips from her Guinness. And just before she loses herself in “The Sky Opened Up” she asks, “does anyone have any enemies?” before she sings out “If you dare to be/ true to what you believe/ There’s always somebody to lose”.

Sometimes it felt like people were collectively trying to crawl inside each song to inspect its nuances, in the same way that Olsen cradles the language like a newborn child, aware of its purity, fragility and potential. “Lonely Universe” is a lo-fi, ragged, heartbreaking ballad, where her voice soars around the darkened room, desperate to escape the walls.

This is really what makes this concert so astonishing, the sense of free, almost combustible artistry, the coaxing sensuality coupled with a sense of boundary and mystery. A coda to “Lonely Universe” is possibly “Acrobat”, the most yearning perhaps, of Olsen’s compositions, and tonight it is endearing, childlike, and romantic – as she sings “I love the way you take a walk/ And all the things that you see with your eyes,/ Oh to be that distant thought,/Some growing meaning in your mind”. It is a kind of naivety that catches, reflected in the way her voice trickles and flurries like a stream of water, expressing clarity of thought with raw feeling.

And as she leaves the stage, and people file out onto the street, another lyric from “Acrobat” keeps coming back, like the waves within, and seems to be Olsen’s most personal statement, the most precious kind – “I want to be made out of love, I want to be made into life”, and tonight she was, and perhaps we were too. – Siobhán Kane

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