Aug 202021

It would be easy to assume, on first acquaintance with the Aisles EP, that Angel Olsen is hopping on the bandwagon of artists who’ve found success making slowed-down and sulky covers of iconic ’80s pop tunes. She’s continuing a trend initiated by Gary Jules on “Mad World,” you might think, which M. Ward developed on “Let’s Dance,” Lorde on “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” Kari Kimmell on “Cruel Summer,” and Greg Laswell on (yes, honestly) “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” a brooding version of the Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited” surely just around the corner.

It might also seem that Olsen is tapping into the Stranger Things-assisted revival of analog synthesizers so central to the ’80s sound, which “boy from Michigan” John Grant has done so much to bolster in recent times. But, while there may be some truth in all of this, Olsen is way too singular an artist to be remotely obvious or predictable in her reinterpretations of tracks made famous by Laura Branigan, Billy Idol, Men Without Hats, OMD, and Alphaville.

The Missouri-born singer-songwriter releases the five-track EP on the heels of five genre-defying studio albums littered with intimate songs of sadness, angst, loneliness, and desperation. She proved particularly unclassifiable on 2019 highpoint All Mirrors, it being here that she combined deeply personal lyrics, tormented vocals and a 12-piece string section with a retro electronic sound. She brought wavy synth lines to the mesmerizing title track that increased its sense of majesty, but also to “New Love Cassette,” on which she explored similarly eerie and ethereal territory as Jagjaguwar label mate Sharon Van Etten on that year’s “Jupiter 4.” She further defied classification by releasing stripped-back versions of these songs on 2020’s Whole New Mess. This was ahead of a 2021 box set of rarities, and a recent foray into heartland rock with Van Etten on “Like I Used To,” the surest contender yet for single of the year.

Olsen enters into Aisles a true musical chameleon, then, while operating on a new level of creative freedom and unexpected frivolity. She distinguishes the EP, indeed, as the first release on her new Jagjaguwar imprint somethingscosmic, the intended home for all her “covers, collaborations, and one-off singles.” She also remarks, in her accompanying statement, of making the record in pandemic-era Drop of Sun Studios in Asheville, North Carolina, and needing “to laugh and have fun and be a little less serious about the recording process in general.” She eased off making music as a cathartic process necessary to her, in other words, and chose to work on covers with co-producer Adam McDaniel “just for the hell of it,” citing a “straightforward connection” to the songs.

This, then, was the attitude behind their unusual degree of experimentation with vintage machines marked Yamaha and Roland: “I’d come over to find Adam had set up 5 or so synthesizers, and we’d get lost on a part for a while messing with some obscure pedal I knew nothing about.”

Olsen’s newfound sense of “fun” in “obscure pedals” does not, needless to say, manifest itself in any revitalized dancefloor party anthems on Aisles (just try strutting your stuff to any of these tracks!). But the singer has gone above and beyond to embrace the emotion, otherworldliness, melodrama, and sexual ambiguity of her chosen musical era, as suggested by her resemblance to one of Steve Strange’s androgynous New Romantic protégés on the accompanying artwork. She’s also been reveling in making explicit all the dark undercurrents and complexities of the five songs, which were formerly overridden by dance-pop production values, macho posturing, and/or era-defining post-punk wackiness. She’s turned her gaze on the damaged characters, the twisted relationships…the anxious nightclubbers.

Angel kicks things off in startling fashion by transforming Branigan’s 1982 synth-pop smash “Gloria” (originally recorded by Italian musician Umberto Tozzi, lest we forget) into a woozy slice of pure mournfulness. She replaces all the fizz and bounce of this staple of ’80s radio with something altogether more noirish, after imagining, so she says, playing it at a family Christmas and seeing aunts “dancing and laughing in slow motion.” The result is not only pleasingly reminiscent of Angelo Badalamenti’s dreamy synth work on Twin Peaks, but also the sense of tragedy to be found in Ella Fitzgerald’s “Miss Otis Regrets.” Olsen, backed by swirling synths and distorted strings, shines a light on the deeply troubled protagonist within the song like Branigan never could, leaving the listener overrun with questions. Could Gloria be mentally ill? Is her head just scrambled after a bad breakup? Is she “always on the run” because she’s haunted by memories? Or is she paranoid? Insane? Suicidal?

More arresting is what Olsen does with Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face,” the standout track here. It’s an incredible song to start with, penned by Idol and guitarist Steve Stevens (and a breakthrough US hit in 1984), but its full power as a twisted ballad is often lost on those who regard the lip-curling, fist-pumping Idol as a slightly cartoonish figure amongst leather-clad ex-punks. Olsen reinvents it, in all seriousness, as a lush piece of dream-pop in the mold of a Beach House record, keeping the impeccable bass-line, the lightly strummed acoustic guitar, and the handclaps, but adding layers of breathy, vocoder-assisted vocals. She sings it with as much emotional commitment as her own “Shut Up Kiss Me,” the theme of a relationship sunk by feelings of betrayal and mistrust being not so different: “I spend so much time / Believing all the lies / To keep the dream alive.” She achieves something beautiful and poignant on the adventurous middle-eight, too, substituting what she calls “a rap part” with a “tripped out instrumental” and going full Herbie Hancock on the vocoder, as she repeatedly entreats: “Don’t call me on the phone.”

If it’s the most audacious cover that you’re after on Aisles, though, then Olsen’s version of Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance” is it. The singer felt the Canadian band’s 1983 hit about being kicked out of a club for pogo dancing to new wave music “could be reinterpreted to be about the time of quarantine and the fear of being around anyone or having too much fun.” She’s therefore succeeded in twisting a perky and eccentric electropop song into a track that is intense and poignant in our current time. She sings “We can dance if we want to” as if embarking on a soundtrack to a dystopian movie; as if Vangelis is on keys and Gary Numan on backing vocals. And it’s quite brilliant for that.

Olsen doesn’t take quite so many risks on OMD’s “If You Leave,” and Alphaville’s “Forever Young,” owning that these covers are “close to the originals, but with a slightly different spin.” Her OMD outing suffers from being just not weird enough, especially as it’s one of the electronic band’s most conventional pop songs anyway. Her approach to the German synth group’s ode to mortality, however, is moving to the extreme, with Olsen back to sounding like she is being beamed in from another planet. Who else could bring such unearthly melancholy to the lines “So many adventures given up today / So many songs we forgot to play”?

Olsen’s covers EP, then, is hopefully the first of many. She proves conclusively that she has the voice, the imagination, the nerve, and the cool synthesizers, to reinvent songs in ways that take them into extraordinary new territory. She also has the capacity to explore the depths of other people’s tracks wherever they have surprising and newly relevant things to say. Maybe she’ll do “I’m So Excited” on the next somethingscosmic release.

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