“Thursday is the day of sin, don’t you know,” said Angel Olsen from the Turner Hall Ballroom stage—after asking the audience what day it was. She was in a typically conversational mode in Milwaukee, the second stop on her “last tour in a long while” (according to her Facebook page). She released a new EP, Forever Means, in April, but she hasn’t been playing anything from it live; Olsen is currently taking stock of a whirlwind decade of nearly universal acclaim, and perhaps tapping into what has threaded it all together.
She did draw heavily from her latest full-length record, last year’s Big Time, beginning with “Dream Thing” to ease into the set. Guitarist Stewart Bronaugh applied a wavery Leslie speaker effect that permeated several songs. For fans who jumped aboard during Olsen’s breakthrough pop years, the extra twangy bent may have been disarming, but her early exposure came via the Chicago-area folk/alt-country scene, and that aesthetic has never completely vanished from her work. In this sense, Big Time is a return to roots of sorts, and that lush Americana vibe seeped into almost everything she played Thursday night.
She taunted the crowd early on with the promise of something brand new, only to bust into her biggest hit instead, “Shut Up Kiss Me,” even pausing for comic effect after a bombastic second chorus: “I forget what happens next…I think it’s like slower…?” A total rock-star move, not necessarily a term most people associate with Olsen, but maybe they’d better get used to the idea. In the span of six albums, she’s explored a myriad of styles that wouldn’t necessarily fit together side by side, yet nothing seemed out of place in her current rock band setup.
In fact, most of the songs she played built to big, guitar-led peaks, keeping a fairly steady rhythm of quiet-loud dynamics with banter in between songs for recombobulation. A particularly massive climax in “Ghost On” left everyone a little disoriented, although venue quirks might’ve played a role. “Have you guys ever been here before?” Olsen asked the crowd. “Have you ever been on this stage? Did you feel like you were about to roll off of it? It feels a little bit like a boat.” The effect applies to all of Turner Hall, of course, and although Olsen has plenty of pensive material for a polite, sit-down show, the ballroom turned out to be a perfect setting for the current iteration of Olsen’s band and a raucous crowd.
“We’re gonna simmer down, don’t you worry,” said Olsen, introducing “This Is How It Works,” a rare breather in the set. “This is a sad song, after all. That’s what you came for, isn’t it, you little perverts? Tryin’ to go to the show tonight to cry. Fuckin’ assholes. You better be happy I fuckin’ wrote this song for you to cry to.” For a lot of fans, though, the biggest treat was a mini solo interlude at the end of the set, when Olsen reached way back for fan favorite “Unfucktheworld,” and even further back for “Some Things Cosmic” off her debut EP, 2010’s Strange Cacti.
In those days, the Americana scene was hitting a saturation point; everyone was doing “haunting” and “breathy” and “atmospheric.” Olsen came along with a much scrappier, more lyric-focused approach in the vein of Liz Phair or Joni Mitchell, and it was cool to witness that attitude still peeking through. Yet even back then, Olsen’s voice set her apart, and her vocal prowess has only grown in the ensuing years. The encore of “Woman” showcased her full range across a sprawling epic that played like a full-force counterpart to Tom Petty’s “It’s Good To Be King,” one of the crown jewels of his catalog, breathtaking every time. That may be a bold comparison, but Olsen’s place in the Americana pantheon is already assured; in the context of modern music consumption, she’s already a legend.