Angel Olsen’s debut album ‘Half Way Home’ turns 10
Angel Olsen has spent the last decade gradually rising to the forefront of the indie music world, and as she increases in popularity, she also continues to progress creatively at every turn; no two Angel Olsen albums are alike, and no move she ever makes is predictable. That's what makes it so exciting to look back on her 2012 debut album Half Way Home, released ten years ago today (9/4), an album that was full of promise but far from the version of Angel Olsen that the world knows today.
Before releasing Half Way Home, Angel had been playing as a member of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's band, and in 2010 she released the Strange Cacti EP, which got a wider release in 2011 on Bathetic Records, a small label that had also put out an early Cloud Nothings cassette, as well as releases by experimental bands like Wet Hair and Bitchin Bajas. That same label then issued her debut full-length Half Way Home in 2012. At this point in her career, you could accurately refer to Angel Olsen as a folk singer. On the entirely self-produced Strange Cacti, she delivered her songs with nothing more than her own voice and acoustic guitar. On Half Way Home, which Angel co-produced with fellow Bonnie 'Prince' Billy band member Emmett Kelly, her songs were sometimes augmented by some light drums and bass, but many were just as bare-bones as her EP. Angel was far from the only contemporary musician pulling from the intimate, cultishly-loved folk singers of roughly half a century ago, but she stood out from other likeminded artists with a high and lonesome warble that sounded something like Roy Orbison meets Connie Converse. It was clear from her voice alone that Angel Olsen wasn't just another Vashti Bunyan or Nick Drake devotee. There was something extra special about her music, which wouldn't remain a secret for long.
Her clear talent stirred up some rumblings in certain corners of the underground music world when Half Way Home was released, but the buzz didn't really hit on a widespread level until she signed to Jagjaguwar and released the more indie rock-oriented Burn Your Fire For No Witness in 2014. From there, she continued to expand, with 2016's poppier My Woman, 2019's orchestral All Mirrors, and 2022's countrified Big Time. No matter which direction she went in, she never abandoned the folky roots of Half Way Home, but she never made another album as startlingly intimate either (though 2020's Whole New Mess, an acoustic reworking of All Mirrors, came close). For all of these reasons, Half Way Home feels like a comparatively hidden gem that's still ripe for rediscovery and re-evaluation. Angel's music has evolved a lot since then, but Half Way Home offers up much more than humble beginnings. Like every other album she released, it's one of one, and it's a thrill to hear her now-familiar voice on these more tucked-away songs.
There are a few moments on Half Way Home that hint at what was to come later on, most directly the driving rhythm section of "The Waiting," but for the most part, the Angel Olsen of Half Way Home doesn't sound like an artist at all concerned with crossover appeal. Her songs on this album stop you in your tracks with just a few well-chosen chords and Angel's powerful lyricism, like when she sings of the loss of childhood innocence on "Lonely Universe" or delivers provocative metaphor on "Miranda." Her approach to '60s-style folk on this album is as instantly timeless as Angel's influences, and even within this long-established style of music, she found a way to entirely make it her own. She also knew how to have just the right amount of variety on the album, from the band songs to the solo songs to outliers like the cinematic Western of "The Sky Opened Up." The album's best song, though, is penultimate track "Free." It's on this song where she perfects the kind of suspenseful, climactic songwriting that would inform many of the most impactful songs she'd write throughout the next decade. Even more so than "The Waiting," "Free" sounds like an Angel Olsen song that could come out today and would still take the world by storm. It's one of her best.
As Angel Olsen's crowds got bigger and her music got louder, Half Way Home became more and more of a distant memory. After Angel played almost the entire album in full on a livestream during COVID lockdown -- during which she performed many of these songs for the first time in years -- she told Pitchfork that playing this material reminded her of how much her voice has changed over the years, and felt "like covering somebody else’s music in a style that you don’t necessarily relate to anymore." The Angel Olsen of Half Way Home does indeed sound a lot different than the Angel Olsen of 2022, but the music on that album remains just as crucial as the music she's making today. Even without the context of the rest of her career, it's a gem that sounds just as refreshing today as it did 10 years ago.