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An Angel Abroad

Seeing Angel Olsen play Madrid is a bit like watching your childhood best friend meet the roommates: it’s beautiful, but sometimes you need to duck out of the room. Olsen is here, here being Europe, to promote Phases, 2017’s collection of folk/rock anthems that didn’t make it into her four previous albums. It’s a tour for the fans, who’ve filled the thousand seat theatre. She promises the crowd she’ll play any song we like. I catch myself wondering if anyone else is having an out-of-body experience.

Like the Orpheum in San Francisco or Boston’s own Opera House, Madrid’s Calderon is capped with a neck-achingly beautiful ceiling and impossibly low-backed seats. The fluttering vibrato of Olsen’s voice in “Iota,” and even the power-ballad of “Never Be Mine” are swallowed up. Standing is difficult: the chairs, which are covered in dark velvet, keep everyone firmly anchored in place and exactly one arm-rest away from the nearest neighbor. In the 17th century, the Calderon was actually an order of Trinitarian monks; in 2018, it is still impossible to dance there.

Photography by Viltė Vaitkutė

Cradling her guitar against the buttons of a black smock, Olsen’s stage presence – feet braced, straight-talking, All-American – feels incongruous in the middle of all that finery. She tells the crowd about her morning: how she walked through the “big park,” (meaning, the Parque Retiro) and wandered into a nice art museum (the Prado) to look at some “pretty nice stuff.” I want to understand that she’s joking, I want to know that she’s doing what I did on the first string of Tinder dates here - play American ignorant and let the other person show you the town - but then she asks the crowd if they’ll make her a plate of paella. This is much like going to the States and asking a Californian if they’ll throw you a New England clam bake. Someone actually hisses.

I started listening to Olsen on the futon of my high school bedroom, waiting for a text from the boy I was trying to date, volume turned on high to drown out the sounds of the football game floating in from the nearby city college. In high school the angst of Olsen’s lyrics (sample line: “I am the one now”) made a very specific kind of sense: e.g: “I have to save my life.”

I particularly loved a song called “High Five,” whose combination of punchy but geekily proud lyrics, “Are you lonely too? High five/ So am I,” made me feel like dancing and crying and taking a bunch of pictures. The lucky recipient of both photos and lyrics was my best friend, whose Spotify feed regularly alternated between Nico, Leonard Cohen, and the Velvet Underground - not necessarily in that order. In response to the Olsen lyrics, she texted back the laughing emoji and the words LOL – sad.

Photography by Viltė Vaitkutė

Onstage in the Spanish theatre, Olsen also laughs about the navel-gazey quality of her music. “I was twenty-three, you know, living in Chicago and waitressing and sad.” This is apparently enough to transition to her next song, which is equally introspective and, one might even say, sad. Sitting in the theatre as an almost-twenty one year old who is no longer so depressed, I realize what disappoints me in all of this is the disclaimer. Olsen is now thirty-one; she is concluding a world tour; it must be difficult to re-resurrect old relationships every time she steps up to the microphone; but who comes to see Angel Olsen in Madrid if they are not also a little bit “lonely too?”

Holding a hand up to shield her eyes, the folk singer peers out across the crowd, a sea of people that almost certainly includes more than one homesick North American. She smiles: “No, I can’t sing this without laughing.” But then she does: and the music flies up into the gold-embossed ceiling of the Teatro Calderon, where I crane my neck to watch it go.

If you’re looking to see Olsen on N. American soil, she’ll be back in the United States come June for the start of her Dreams tour. She’ll start in North Carolina on June 5th and close out in Massachussets at Mass MOCA on September 29th.