Young Women, Old Music

On their new albums, Angel Olsen, Lydia Loveless, and Alynda Lee Segarra use history to change the present.

Angel Olsen, Lydia Loveless, and Alynda Lee Segarra.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Zia Anger, Patrick Crawford, Sarrah Danziger.

How does adopting anachronistic styles serve an artist in her early 20s, in a day when the life span of now seems ever shorter? Three albums led by young American women out this month—Angel Olsen’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness, Lydia Loveless’ Somewhere Else, and Small Town Heroes by Hurray for the Riff Raff—come at that question each in their own ways, and maybe tell us something about our own moment in the process.

At least since record reissuing began, likely with the 1952 release of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, there have been young musicians drawn to the timbres of generations past in search of something realer, stranger, more haunted than what they find in the present. They often take those singers of the past as the voices of a volksgeist, even when in fact they were professional entertainers. It’s a romanticism that’s easy to dismantle and discount, but accurate on at least one front: Whatever that old music was when it was made, it’s not an active part of today’s hustle, not a going commodity of exchange.

In an era that combines near-instant obsolescence with a thoroughly accessible online vault of musical history, the spooky gravitas artists used to reach back decades to find can now attach to just about anything. It’s not hard to imagine an artist next week trying to evoke the simpler, more elemental times of 2009 with a sepia-tinted cover of “Party in the U.S.A.” (maybe even Miley herself).

In recent years, not-far-bygone commercial acts such as Fleetwood Mac or the Everly Brothers have come to evoke yearning and mortality, their tones those of the cosmos or the mountains rather than of recording studios—or at least of warmer, less computerized recording studios. Well before the news of Phil Everly’s death, last year brought two prominent albums in tribute to the sibling duo: What the Brothers Sang by Dawn McCarthy and Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Will Oldham), and Foreverly by Billie Joe Armstrong (of Green Day) and Norah Jones. The emphasis was not on the nostalgic bobby-soxer hits like “Wake Up Little Susie” but on roots recording Songs Our Daddy Taught Us and later obscure deep cuts that the singers could render their own.

For stars such as Armstrong and Jones, the attraction of such projects must be to disrupt expected narratives, to decontextualize themselves. Young artists, by contrast, often start out feeling disrupted and decontextualized; they use old music primarily to express that unmooredness, or to heal it.

With Hurray for the Riff Raff, antiquarianism is mainly a salve. Lead singer Alynda Lee Segarra is a Nuyorican who ran away from the Bronx to New Orleans as a teen in 2007 by jumping rail cars and became part of the tribe of punkish neo-hobos that you’ll find panhandling and busking in the Faubourg Marigny—many of them singing in a drawl they may not have gotten by upbringing but nevertheless wear with sincerity.

Before long Segarra picked up the banjo and a crackerjack band, with touchstones ranging from Bessie Smith to Bikini Kill but always in an old-timey frame. Even when Segarra’s singing about last year’s New Delhi bus rape (and sexual violence in general) on “The Body Electric,” she couches it in a deconstruction of the folk-blues legacy of the murder ballad.

From outside their community, this posture can seem a little odd, a kind of hickface, but for this subculture in America’s most ethno-culturally polymorphous city of masquerade, the sonic costumery signifies loyalty: of Segarra to her band, of the band to its community, of that community to New Orleans, and of New Orleans to the global underdog, the ragbag 99-percent riffraff.

Segarra doesn’t seem to find any more contradiction than she can handle in adopting these in many ways conservative regional sounds to explore her own queer, feminist, leftist identity. And why should she, given that appropriating folk idioms to progressive politics has been a tradition of its own since Pete Seeger met Woody Guthrie? But the challenge for the listener is that the group’s vigor and vitality can seem to come second to the genre exercise. Perhaps that bespeaks an ethic of humility that some listeners will appreciate, but it’s hard not to suspect the stylistic apparatus is holding something back—perhaps the less-communitarian but very human traits of disagreeability, impatience, lust, and ambition. For me it keeps the music from feeling all there.

By contrast those sensual excesses are present in spades on Ohio-born singer Lydia Loveless’ third album, which appeals to previous decades of both country and punk (and their hybrids) for guidance in an urgent-sounding attempt to suss out how, at 23, to feel all that and live. Somewhere Else, as its title hints, marks in some ways a reboot: It’s her first record since she fired her father, who ran a Columbus, Ohio, country bar when she was growing up, as her drummer; and it comes after she scrapped a batch of songs she’d written to follow up the more trad-country sound of her earlier records.

What might stand out initially are the unapologetic accounts of partying and sex (the first single, “Head,” joins Beyoncé’s “Blow” in making this winter a banner season for women singing about receiving cunnilingus). But the emotional edge is more about growing up on the other side of living hard, the imperative of autonomous definition butting up against the hazards of loneliness: “I swore I’d never be this bitter again, but some years have passed,” she sings on “Everything’s Gone,” one of many moments here that not only recall Lucinda Williams’ classic 1988 self-titled album but update that record’s snapshot of the pitfalls and pleasures of female self-reliance.

For Loveless, the purpose of placing herself in the lineage of everyone from Rosie Flores and Loretta Lynn to Exene Cervenka and perhaps Natalie Maines seems to be to find points of comparison and companionship. She’s listening for common ground and borrowable wisdom; unlike Hurray for the Riff Raff, she’s not looking to history for an alternative to contemporary life. I’d predict that her future albums would continue to become less beholden to any specific references from the past.

That metamorphosis is already well underway for the most gifted of these three artists, 26-year-old Angel Olsen, born in St. Louis, long based in Chicago, and recently relocated to Asheville, N.C. Her previous album, 2012’s Half Way Home, featured her acoustic guitar and vocals almost exclusively, foregrounding the rustic vibrato and erratic swoops in her throat in a way that made listeners think of yodeling prewar 78s and operatic cylinder recordings. (She got noticed backing Will Oldham on record and as part of his touring “Babblers” and the Cairo Gang.)

The new album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, only enhances her chameleonic versatility. From second to second her intonations might nudge to mind Billie Holiday, Skeeter Davis, Karen Dalton, Claudine Longet, Emmylou Harris, or Hope Sandoval—but now she also has a band, and all those vocal figure eights prove resilient enough not just to skate on delicate surfaces but to stage an aerial dogfight with drums, electric guitar, and keyboards.

Instead of some past Appalachian or cabaret singer, the Olsen of Burn Your Fire most reminds me of the Lower Dens, the Baltimore-based band that’s made some of the most stirring rock of the past decade. The resonance is telling, because that band’s leader, Jana Hunter, first emerged alongside singers such as Josephine Foster and Joanna Newsom (with whom Olsen now shares producer John Congleton) during the last period that the anachronistic-youth threat got much play—the “freak folk” hype of the early 2000s.

In that anxious interlude under the shadows of war, terror, and the Bush administration, however, yelpy shouts tended to drown out dusty ballads, and the eccentric soloists of that milieu were soon eclipsed by the banded-together likes of Animal Collective and Arcade Fire. Today’s young singers of the Great Recession seem less compulsively galvanized, more resigned to and at ease with their own dispossession, and more able to laugh about their melancholy.

On nearly every song on Burn Your Fire, Olsen seems to be singing about feelings that can’t be held onto for long, serial dislocations that leave her at once liberated and bereft. The videos for “Forgiven/Forgotten” and “Hi-Five” illustrate the sensation: In the first, Olsen embraces a man whose face is scribbled out, then withdraws into a whole background of scribbles; in “Hi-Five” we find her literally dancing with herself.

That dynamic seems very 2014 to me, expressive of a situation that none of the old-time singers who live in the folds of Olsen’s voice could ever have experienced: Hers is a generation that’s grown up with a double life, with both everyday existence and an online array of networks and avatars. Perhaps especially for a young woman, this surfeit of information and interaction can at once enlarge and suppress the self. So this record resounds of being constantly seen yet perpetually overlooked, being isolated by connection and yet connected in that common isolation—to friends, to listeners, to loss.

Critics have a tendency to overestimate Olsen’s lyrics—comparing her language to Leonard Cohen’s, for example, when it’s actually the arpeggiated guitar arrangements on “White Fire” that recall 1968’s “Stranger Song.” Rather than elaborate figures and allusions, she relies on simpler sets of images and verbs often in sequences of pairs that accrete to reveal a bigger picture. If you simply read a lyric sheet, Burn Your Fire might seem like a straightforward breakup album. What extends its implications are the details she braids and rivets into the lyrics with her voice, colorations that can make adjacent syllables seem to hail from alien climates, to vibrate across different dimensions.

As a consequence, while what Olsen sings about—relationships, separations, the strain of self-invention and assertion—are evergreen subjects, the consciousness through which she filters them feels surprisingly new, and just evasive enough to entice us to return and listen again. She taps into the sounds and sentiments of the past, from the pagan to the postmodern, as if dipping into a cabinet of paints to synthesize new colors. While her songwriting still may be uneven, it’s more than adequate to her musical purposes, to make this record of wavering lights and stars and fires burn into the memory, to take its place among the future resources for nostalgics and visionaries yet to come.