Gig review: Angel Olsen at University of Leeds Stylus

Angel Olsen. Picture: Gary Brightbart
Angel Olsen. Picture: Gary Brightbart
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“Hate on hate does nothing,” declares Angel Olsen before she closes her 90-minute set with the luminous optimism of ‘Windows’.

Her allusion to the horrific incident at Manchester Arena the previous night isn’t lost on the audience, whose very act of attending is a united stand against terrorism.

It’s a shared experience that’s key to the North Carolina based alt-country musician’s oeuvre. With recurrent lyrical themes of heartache and self-doubt, lines such as, “You might as well be blind /‘Cause you don’t see me any more” (‘High And Wild’) should be overwrought sixth-form poetry. Her expressive voice nonetheless renders it empathic, the deadpan delivery foregoing sympathy for determination.

This sleight of vulnerability wrapped in steel repeats throughout, with her fluttering vibrato on opening track ‘Heart Shaped Face’ being toughened by her five-piece backing band, who are dapper in matching suits. ‘Acrobat’ likewise morphs from Lana Del Rey playing 50’s country to a more full blooded rock number when the band shift up a gear.

Many of these tracks start with just Olsen on vocals and guitar before other instruments enter, a slow build that’s at its most dynamic on the encore of ‘Unf***theworld’ (a sentiment that’s printed on the bass drum’s skin). With the first half performed solo as quietly burning country-folk, the band stroll back on stage to add some muscular anger to its finale.

Yet rather than the full band arrangements being added as an afterthought, their input helps Olsen widen her frames of musical reference, be that the bubblegum grunge of ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’, the icy synth strains of ‘Woman’, or the straightforward Patsy Cline-ism of ‘Tiniest Seed’. In addition it allows her to show a more light-hearted side, with a new wave cover of The Motels’ ‘Total Control’.

This willingness to play with form is key to her musical development, and her newfound stage confidence breaks down the songs’ emotional intensity without sacrificing their ability to connect.