On the Cusp of Mystery and Imagination: Angel Olsen’s Phases

A love letter from one Cap-Aquarian heart to another.

When I was approached to review Angel Olsen’s newest record, Phases, I immediately thought I wouldn’t be able. I’ve loved Olsen’s songs since I was 14, and, given my bias, every sentence would be some sort of variation of, “This is a perfect song.” Scrolling through my Photo Booth videos from high school, I can find videos of myself singing her songs with such assurance, feeling like I wrote the words to them myself. On one video, my voice a little higher than it is now, I sing “If It’s Alive, It Will” from her 2010 record Strange Cacti. As I watch, I can see how much the words transport me and how strongly I feel connected to her.

In Phases, Olsen strips down to her most vulnerable songwriting yet. Before getting there, she gives us “Fly On Your Wall,” a haunting and self-assured march where she steps back and sees herself as an ardent participant in love. But by the end of the song, it’s about her. She bellows, “A love never made is still mine / If only real in my mind.” It’s like she’s reaffirming one of my favorite songs from 2016’s My Woman, “Those Were The Days,” where she reflects on a love: “But I’ll take all of it / Don’t want to leave it behind / I’ll take all of it / If it’s only real in my mind.” In both songs, Olsen admits that the weight of the love she is experiencing mostly exists in her own head—but that heaviness, in itself, makes it true.

Like me, Olsen is on the Capricorn-Aquarius cusp. I was born at the beginning of the cusp (January 17), and she was born at the end, on the 22nd. This cusp is actually called “the cusp of mystery and imagination.” Those born in this window of time are some of the biggest fantasizers, and they often have a difficult time separating reality from their own imaginations.

Olsen’s songs have accompanied pivotal romantic moments in my life. In high school, I felt these moments full-force and huge, and when I think of that time, I remember a romantic and beautiful version of the truth. Everything was so big to me. It was like I was experiencing most of my life in my own head.  It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I started realizing so many of my memories of  growing up were actually so embellished to a point that reality is buried deeper. The narratives Olsen sings about are the ones I have always accentuated in my head: the idea of love as almost too big for reality. When I started recognizing this tendency, I felt crazy. My distance from reality made me feel panicked and afraid. I challenged myself to become more grounded because I didn’t yet want to embrace a part of myself that I was embarrassed by. But I need to ask: If i’m feeling these things this much, like Olsen is, aren’t they the most real?

In Phases, Olsen not only admits that her emotions are often not grounded in reality, but she embraces it. In “Sweet Dreams,” Olsen sings, “Every time I close my eyes / Something small within me dies / Can’t say if it’s dark or bright / But it’s all I’ve ever known / And when I sleep / I sleep alone.”  She is self-assured and confident; she owns everything she feels. In “All Right Now,” it’s like she’s telling me directly that my fantasies belong to me—that they are a part of me. She sings, “You do not have to reach out / To somebody new / You do not have to hold her / In your fingertips / It’s always been there with you / You are what it is.” Her optimism about feeling love is almost idyllic. In “California,” she uses the idea of a paradise to capture her romantic reverie.  She admits, “I don’t mean California literally.” In this song, Olsen wonders if the reality of her relationship matches the paradise she is feeling. She asserts, “I’m not dreaming / Not this time, anyway.” Still, she seems unsure: “I’ve never felt quite so open before / And maybe my imagination runs away with me.” It all begs the question: If it feels so real to her, why couldn’t it be important?

Upon my first listen, it seemed like Olsen is exploring a relationship with another person. Then after listening more carefully, it becomes clear that she’s really exploring her relationship with herself. In “Only With You,” probably my favorite song from the album, Olsen expresses feelings of inadequacy. She whispers, “All your life you’ve been looking / Whatever it is, you don’t find it in me.” She grapples with distance in “Sans,” which means without.  In “Tougher Than the Rest,” Olsen reflects on her many different lives. She swoons, “Well, it ain’t no secret / I’ve been around a time or two.” Still, she’s open to new experiences and new love. She sings sarcastically, “How unfair to have a heart that’s still beating?” in “How Many Disasters.” To a Cap-Aquarian, this is a gift.

Olsen confronts and documents her full-fledged romances with an admirable embrace in Phases. Who is she singing about? It doesn’t really matter. This is about her, accepting her own full Cap-Aquarian heart. Olsen inspires me to love the part of myself that daydreams. She grounds her fantasies in these gorgeous songs—to me, there’s nothing realer.

Emily Yacina currently resides in Brooklyn and attends The New School for Environmental Studies. Originally from the greater Philadelphia area, Yacina has been recording her own music for 8 years. She explores the difficulty of heart ache on her new album, Heart Sky. Written and recorded mostly in Alaska, Yacina used the time she spent there to reflect on a year of growth and love. On her latest album, she brings her intimate narratives to life with careful chord progressions and wandering synths.