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.