With Half Way Home, her first proper solo album following some lesser EP and cassette material, Chicago songwriter Angel Olsen constructs a landscape so starkly beautiful it's surprising she can hide any of the emotional intricacies of her songs in a sound so wide open. Olsen spent some time collaborating with Bonnie "Prince" Billy on tour and singing on his records as part of the Cairo Gang, and while relating her sad-souled Americana songs to those of Bonnie Billy's wouldn't be wrong, that lazy comparison doesn't really do justice to their complexity. Half Way Home is a collection of hidden moments and gracefully wounded sounds taking notes from decades of masterfully melancholic artists. The nostalgic bounce of "The Waiting" filters an upbeat indie folk arrangement through a heavy Roy Orbison lens, spotlighting the deep loneliness locked in what comes off as a sprightly mellow rocker. Angel flits between these shades of classic '50s icons like Orbison and Patsy Cline, echoes of Joni Mitchell's '70s free-spirit wandering, and the more modernized approach shared by her indie contemporaries. On tracks like "Can't Wait Until Tomorrow" and "Always Half Strange," she manages to run through all of these styles, building from a disaffected deadpan to a soaring, yodeling crescendo. Olsen keeps the arrangements minimal for much of the album, but the more fleshed-out numbers like "Lonely Universe" and "The Sky Opened Up" have touches of '70s Euro-folk, with understated percussion, haunted vocal delays, and mumbling bass bringing out touches of Fairport Convention or even the muted sorrow of Sibylle Baier. It's the understatement that makes Half Way Home such a heart-wrenching and gorgeous listen. By album closer "Tiniest Seed," Olsen has laid out a transfixing set of tunes that fold back into a softy crushing whole. Bare-bones harmonies, restrained instrumentation, and Olsen's brilliantly isolated musical persona result in an album to return to repeatedly, with new layers revealing themselves each time.
AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas
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