Are ghosts gay canon? Angel Olsen’s Big Time, a record where spectral forces loom large over the expansive sound of ’60s golden-era country, prompts this question for me. Throughout her sixth studio album, the Asheville, N.C., artist expresses being haunted by past selves and memories, at one point referring to herself as a ghost who relives “old scenes [and] dreams” that have crumbled into oblivion. The record was written during a period of navigating queer love and heartbreak for the first time, as well as the loss of her parents, who both passed away shortly after she came out to them.
While spirits are not exclusively a queer phenomenon, I find there is a tendency for modern queer writers, from musician Phoebe Bridgers to poet Ocean Vuong, to imbue their work with metaphorical phantoms. Perhaps it’s because sexual minorities feel a closeness to death (due to much of the world wanting them unalive), or the fact there is always a sense of loss that comes with having to hide your true self from others, only to have to deal with the death of their expectations after revealing who you really are. On Big Time, Olsen investigates the deep intimacies of how love and grief intermingle, adopting the melodrama of classic Nashville songwriters like Tammy Wynette to grant her explorations a timeless feel.
Sexual minorities feel a closeness to death (due to much of the world wanting them unalive).
There’s an unhurried nature to Big Times’ arrangements of pooling lap steel and sleepy guitar licks, which gives Olsen the space to articulate the far-ranging facets of her bereavement. Just with subtle adjustments to her masterful vocal delivery, she conveys every feeling from wistful nostalgia on “All the Good Times,” to frustration on “Right Now,” to dejection on “This Is How It Works,” to resignation on “Ghost On.” “I can’t fit into the past that you’re used to, I refuse to,” she sings on that last track, sounding numb inside yet still dedicated to shedding the old versions of herself.
The space also allows Olsen to impart love’s vastness. On the bucolic title track, she drowsily offers snapshots of sacred moments with a lover: lying in tall grass, listening to music by a lake, and chatting into the night by a fire. “We’re always busy, baby, not this time,” Olsen sings with a twang over honky-tonk piano. She revels in a slowness and uncultivated luxury that recall queer films in the Western canon like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Call Me by Your Name, and Brokeback Mountain, where the two protagonists find themselves in the expanse of nature, isolated from the heteronormative pressures of society, where their romance can simmer at the languid pace of the changing seasons. “I’m losin’ I’m losin’ I’ve left it behind/Guess I had to be losin’ to get here on time,” she sings in the chorus, both honoring and mourning what she’s had to say goodbye to in order to reach her now-enlightened state.
Eventually, Olsen reaches a version of acceptance. First, she must unleash her delicious fury on “Go Home,” where she exasperatedly sings, “I don’t belong here/Nobody knows me,” over an echoing pile of discordant horns and strings. This is my favorite Olsen mode, where she blows up songs with her grand statements, insisting that her needs and desires be acknowledged—her equivalent of stepping into the bonfire’s flames and letting them swallow up the hem of her dress. Then on the penultimate “Through the Fire,” she sounds as if she’s found some sort of peace: “Walk through the fires/Of all earthly desires/And let go of the pain that obstructs you from higher higher higher,” she ascends as her whispery voice floats over swirling strings.
Finally, with the romantic Western “Chasing the Sun,” she sorrowfully sings of following that orb of light in order to “[drive] away the blues.” With these fiery closing images, Olsen commits to the transformation that’s promised on the other side of loss. Like a ghost who’s reached closure, she floats out of the realm that’s trapped her. Like a cowboy who embraces the freedom of the unknown, she rides off into the sunset.