Angel Olsen has shied away from sharing original music for a while now. After releasing All Mirrors in 2019, she put out Whole New Mess the following year, featuring intimate, re-imagined versions of the previous LP’s compositions. And right when fans were expecting Olsen to announce another proper album, ushering in a new era that reflects her life after the breakup that inspired All Mirrors, the musician has instead unveiled an unexpected project: Aisles, an EP featuring Olsen’s distinctive take on a collection of ’80s hits. Fans may groan that Olsen’s being evasive when it comes to writing new music; luckily, this EP is some of her most surprisingly impressive work yet.
Aisles opens with the musician’s rendition of “Gloria,” originally by Italian pop singer Umberto Tozzi but translated into a massive American hit for Laura Branigan. Olsen’s always excelled at highlighting the intensity of lyrics: She wants you to feel the urgency of her words, the heartbreak, the longing. And she expertly picks up on the darkness of Branigan’s take on Tozzi’s song. While Tozzi’s original Italian version was a love song, Branigan’s team didn’t want a direct translation. So the lyrics were changed to be about a woman who, in Branigan’s words, was “running too fast for her own steps.” The lyrics hint at a delusional titular woman obsessed with finding a partner, who believes she’s the biggest catch—but doesn’t realize there’s a reason why nobody’s calling her.
Olsen leans into the harshness of the lyrics, slowing the song down, turning it into an eerie, stunning track with haunting synths. Rather than carrying Branigan’s sympathetic tone, Olsen’s intonation feels more like someone trying to give Gloria a wake-up call. Her version of the hit sticks with you long after a first listen, a true testament to Olsen’s artistry.
Whereas Olsen’s “Gloria” turned the track into one that’s far from Branigan’s pop staple, her version of Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without A Face” is perhaps the closest to the original song out of all her covers on this EP. Idol’s version features Perri Lister, who sings “Les yeux sans visage” (“Eyes without a face”) in the chorus. What works so well in Olsen’s cover is just how much better the song sounds with female vocals in the lead, rather than the margins. There’s a sweetness to it that’s intoxicating.
Olsen next introduces wildcard “Safety Dance” into the mix. The original is as silly as it gets; what else could you expect from a song written by Men Without Hats’ lead singer Ivan Doroschuk about getting kicked out of clubs for pogo dancing? But Olsen turns it into a sultry number, like something you’d sensually dance to with someone at a club. A version of “The Safety Dance” that doesn’t lean into its light-heartedness shouldn’t work, but leave it to Olsen to pull it off. In a press release, Olsen notes that when she reimagined it in the midst of quarantine, she felt it could be reinterpreted to be about the “fear of being around anyone or having too much fun,” bringing up the question, “is it safe to laugh or dance or be free of it all for just a moment?” When Olsen’s “Safety Dance” was released as a single, it was met with a polarizing response: some felt it worked; others likened it to the slowed-down versions of ‘80s songs that are often used in movie trailers. It’s not the strongest cover on the EP, but it’s evident that Olsen’s just trying to have fun with a song that’s so far from her own lyrically-deep material.
The musician also offers up a take on OMD’s “If You Leave.” This is the weakest cover of the EP—decent enough to be a pleasant listen, but for someone who’s written her own masterpieces about relationships falling apart, she surprisingly doesn’t add much to this interpretation. (Quite simply, Olsen doesn’t lean in enough into the emotional urgency of the song.) But she makes up for the weak penultimate track with closer “Forever Young.” The string and synth arrangement of her version of Alphaville’s hit is stunning; it strips away the cheesiness of the original, swapping out the imagery of awkward prom slow dancing for something that feels more mature and romantic.
Angel Olsen—whether intentionally or not—goes for song choices here that likely evoke very specific memories for anyone who listens: childhood movies, grocery shopping, a first love, a night out. It’s interesting to reflect on, given how Olsen’s own songs have become anthemic touchstones about love and loss for her own listeners. These don’t feel like your average indie-goes-’80s covers; they’re a reminder that even when Olsen’s having fun, she can turn something simple into a gut-punch, consuming your thoughts and evoking reflection of the emotional connection tied to her words.