ALBUM REVIEW: ‘Aisles’ – Angel Olsen

Angel Olsen’s latest release, Aisles, indulges in the melodrama of ‘80s pop which speaks to today’s anxiety of uncertain futures.

Aisles was inspired by something so familiar yet so precious to us in lockdown: a trip to the supermarket. An EP consisting of five covers, Olsen said she “wanted to record ’80s songs that [she’d] overheard walking the aisles at the grocery store”. Aisles has an eerie, hauntological sound, capitalising on the melodramatic quality of ‘80s pop. This sensibility is carried through Aisles, until ultimately fracturing and breaking down into a mechanical whirr at the end of ‘Forever Young’. Though many homages to ‘80s pop songs are approached with a tongue-in-cheek attitude, Olsen confers a raw sincerity on her covers and takes them at face value. The respect for the original artistry, paired with the EP’s memorable instrumentals allow for the lyrics of these well-known classics to take on a new life.

A theme that continues throughout Aisles is the reinvention of (somewhat cheesy) ‘80s tunes by taking away their optimism and bringing out their gothic quality: “Feel your innocence slipping away / Don’t believe it’s coming back soon,” sings Olsen, on opening track ‘Gloria’. Olsen slows down the song, and gives it a sense of desperation, not present in the original. “I’d heard Gloria by Laura Branigan for the first time at a family Christmas gathering, and I was amazed at all the aunts who got up to dance. I imagined them all dancing and laughing in slow motion, and that’s when I got the idea to slow the entire song down and try it out in this way”, Olsen recounted in a press statement. As in the original, this rendition is triumphant, however, Olsen’s crooning vocals  create a sense of lacking, as though she feels the absence of Gloria.

Olsen remains faithful to the new-wave, synth-driven sound of Billy Idol’s ‘Eyes Without a Face’. Driving her vocals through distortion, Olsen adds a cool, detached quality to the song and lyrics. The song features carefully autotuned harmonies, establishing the track as the modern-sounding of the lot. Following this, ‘Safety Dance’ is imbued with an anthemic, operatic and gothic quality. Her sound departs from the upbeat, buoyant sound of the Men Without Hats’ original. Notably, ‘Safety Dance’ hints at the collective anxieties of COVID-19, where we can’t indulge in the usual liberties offered by youthfulness; is it “safe to dance”?

The choice to cover ‘Forever Young’ may be unexpected, as covering it has almost become a standard since its 1984 release, but Olsen plays with the song’s structure in a way that breathes new life into the classic. Her use of strings is reminiscent of Kate Bush, and gives a heightened sense of longing and intensity to the lyrics. Moreover, Olsen is aware that the lyrics take on an entirely new, heart-wrenching meaning against the backdrop of a pandemic. “So many adventures couldn’t happen today / So many songs we forgot to play” are sinister reminders of the impermanence of a youth which is seemingly fading away under the weight of the pandemic. “Hoping for the best but expecting the worst…Let us die young or let us live forever / We don’t have the power but we never say never,” she sings. In another context, that line may have all but become cliché, but in Olsen’s rendition it inevitably speaks to the feeling of powerlessness in light of COVID-19. As the lyrics end, we are carried off by Olsen’s synth-like harmonies. In the final minute, the strings and synths break down into disorder that creates a melancholy which her rendition might otherwise be without.

Aisles showcases Olsen’s incredible ability to take songs so famed and make them entirely her own. Initially recorded as an experiment, and not intended for release, Olsen may have unintentionally given these thirty-year-old classics a more certain relevance to our time than ever before.

Ana-Sofia Petrovic
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