Angel Olsen is human, and like any seasoned artist who’s been emotionally roughed up, she translates those experiences into verses that range from raw and languishing — like her 2016 album “My Woman’”s closer, “Pops” — to cheeky notwithstanding her heartache — as with “Hi-Five” off her 2014 album “Burn Your Fire For No Witness.” Her melancholic renown is an exaggerated distinction that slights her commanding voice’s capricious streak. B-sides and rarities comprise her latest outing, “Phases,” halfly comprised of deep cuts previously released as bonus tracks or singles and unreleased material recorded in between albums. For the uninitiated, it’s a tour de force from a deft songwriter, while fans of the St. Louis-by-way-of-Asheville, NC singer-songwriter might leave satisfied but craving more fresh material.
The kickstarting track to “Our First 100 Days,” a 100-song compilation “(inspiring) progress and (benefiting) a cause for change” following Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, “Fly On Your Wall” leads Olsen’s compilation with a march. Its push-forward momentum cradles the lonesome crooner’s heavy heart and reconstructs her situation from defeating to hopeful: “A love never made is still mine/ If only real in my mind.”
She speaks directly to her own desires on the album’s second single, “Special”: “Give me a fever, show me some reason/ Love me whenever it’s out of season/ Want to be special, something like your mother,” her psych-rock influences pouring in from her “My Woman” recording sessions. It’s a leisurely cut, running over the 7-minute mark with psychedelic intensity at its tail end which finds her romantic deliberations once again drawing parallels to the self-defeating country ballads of yore.
“Phases” makes readily available previously unreleased songs like “Sans” and Bruce Springsteen cover song “Tougher Than the Rest,” while about half of the 12 songs on the compilation were featured as bonus tracks or singles. This comes with the album’s nature as a compilation album. These b-sides don’t feel like b-sides though; one has to wonder what it was about “Sweet Dreams” that left it on “Burn Your Fire’”s cutting room floor. It’s another charged song that captures the shift from Olsen’s folky roots with “Strange Cacti” and “Half Way Home” to the melodic grunge bolstered by guitarist Stewart Bronaugh’s punchy rhythm.
“Sans,” a despondent reflection on the rapidly changing life of someone constantly on the move, would have been an outlier on “My Woman” both thematically and sonically — here, it’s another tenderly open track pulled straight from a diary entry. Other stripped down solo songs like “May As Well” frame her as a rolling stone, bouncing from one emotional blow to another with nothing but her warbly cry and lonesome guitar to accompany her on the arid road. But there’s hope: The flames of a dissolving love are fanned in her dreams (“In all of my dreams we are husband and wife/ I’ll never forget you all of my life”). And she learns from Hoyt Axton on the album’s closer, “Endless Road,” that there’s some solace in the pang of solitude, lulling to herself, “I nevermore will roam/ And every road I will see will lead me home.”
Verdict: All the hallmarks of an Angel Olsen record are present in “Phases” short of thematic continuity. Her enchanting voice proves to be a powerful medium of storytelling a la Hank Williams or Stevie Nicks, but she rises above meager comparisons. “Phases” is reaffirmation — if it was necessary — that Olsen’s mercurial songwriting is consistently rich.
Best Tracks: “Fly On Your Wall,” “Special,” “California,” “Endless Road”