It’s important to start at the end. As the last note rang out from a single electric guitar, the singer smiled gracefully before sitting down, cross-legged, for about three seconds. Whether collecting her thoughts or just letting a packed room’s adoration wash over her, Angel Olsen took those three seconds as an exhale from a set that felt pleasantly claustrophobic; Glasslands was more like a blanket than a venue last night, and only about 10% of that had to do with the fact that it was shockingly warm. Olsen acknowledged the heat in one of the few pieces of banter that she landed her set: “It’s warm in here. I just smell… awful. I ate garlic soup earlier and it was delicious, but now my armpits smell.”
She paused to let the laughter ring a bit before adding, “Maybe that’s good to some? God I hope so.” And therein lies the key to Olsen’s undeniable allure as a singer-songwriter: her sense of the moment combines with a feeling of hope that leaves an audience in a knockout lull.
Rewinding a bit, Olsen walked out with just one guitar and no backing band at all. Her only friends on stage were a bottle of water and a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Starting with the cheekily named “Miranda,” she took over the room by force of will and an intoxicating and vibrating voice. That vibration is perhaps the most impressive part of her live set; while on record it’s plenty impressive, hearing it from mere feet away as it creaks and groans and shatters draws the breath away from the lungs. This is serious music that took a wrong turn somewhere, a drink too many somewhere else. Olsen tweaks the self-serious songwriter trope to her advantage, throwing in an unlikely phrase here (from the excellent “Acrobat”: “I love the way your voice is sex.”) and a self-deprecating sentence there (before “Acrobat”: “This song is called ‘Acrobat.’ Ugh. I shouldn’t have said it. It’s like when the song title is in the first line and it’s so embarrassing.”)
The show did suffer a bit (almost minimally) from the lack of additional instrumentation, but only because Half Way Home has some unexpectedly thrilling flourishes. Other than that, the choice to go at it alone, with a toned down guitar, is a wise one for Olsen; her words and her voice are the main attraction. The blues-y “Lonely Universe” does double-duty by being both the best song on the record and the best song in her set, with the perhaps self-referential opening line, “Your hands were cold, your voice was shaking,” setting the tone for what is a perfect winter ballad. It’s a slow burn, over seven minutes long, but it feels as if it ends too soon; one could see themselves listening to Olsen as she weaves through its guitar licks and melancholy pace.
A little while later, she introduced the last song (“Always Half Strange”) with a humble, “This one’s for you guys, if you’ll have it,” creating one more ripple of applause that would be picked up for the aforementioned post-set sit-down. Sometimes, all that one needs is a guitar, some great songs, and a hell of a voice. That being said, a sense of humor sure doesn’t hurt.