“I’m really into doing shit that’s unexpected,” Angel Olsen told NME as she prepared to release the album ‘Whole New Mess’ last year. Taking the staggering orchestral ambition of her fourth album ‘All Mirrors’ and stripping it back to its rawest foundations, it marked something of a reset from an artist whose sound had grown grander and more intricate with each release. Though it was actually recorded first (and these demos later grew into ‘All Mirrors) the two records feel like subtly distorted reflections of each other when they’re placed side by side – almost as if Olsen is covering her own work.
‘Aisles’ continues this thread, taking on a series of covers of ’80s classic, before warping and distorting them through an eerie lens. Her own version of Laura Branigan’s ‘Gloria’ swaps in the original’s bright, shiny melodies for viscous roars of synthesiser, stuttering like a Moog drowning in a bath of golden syrup. While the beauty of the original lay in its contrast, the fear of slipping away masked beneath relentlessly upbeat escapism, Olsen teases out the melancholy. “Are the voices in your head calling, Gloria?” she asks, both sweet and unsettling. Similarly, her versions of ‘If You Leave’ (by Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark) and Billy Idol’s ‘Eyes Without A Face’ trace the rough outlines of the originals before smudging them with dark black charcoal.
Elsewhere, the hiccuping hook powering Men Without Hats’ ‘Safety Dance’ slows down to a menacing rumble, unearthing a tentative kind of excitement, the kind that leave you heavy with a ball of worry in the pit of your stomach. Given the current backdrop of the pandemic, you can’t help but feel it’s prescient. It’s a link further encouraged by Olsen’s delivery, which shifts the original’s closing hook towards a question: “Is it safe to dance?” she wonders, skewing the title. Playing on similar themes, Alphaville’s ‘Forever Young’ plays on similar anxieties: “So many adventures given up today, so many songs we forgot to play”. Though Olsen’s version is less booming, it’s perhaps the most faithful to the original.
Going beyond merely reproducing a ubiquitous set of classics, these versions shed a new light on each, and certain lyrics hit differently with Olsen’s expressive vocal delivery. Though it shares the hallmarks of her own solo music, it also feels like a subtle departure; sitting closest to her retro synth-pop collaboration with Mark Ronson ‘True Blue’. And though ‘fun’ isn’t necessarily the first adjective that comes to mind taking stock of these finished covers, it’s evident that Angel Olsen had plenty of it delving into the emotive guts of each song. At times you miss the cheese of the originals, but this is a solid concept, extremely well-executed.
Release date: August 20
Release label: somethingscosmic