Album Review: Angel Olsen - All Mirrors
Even as Angel Olsen has gradually built up the elements of her music, from the voice-and-acoustic folk ballads of her debut Half Way Home to the Neil Young-esque rock gliders of MY WOMAN, it’s still a shock to long-time fans to hear the sonic leap she’s made onto fourth album All Mirrors. “Hiding out inside my head again/ it’s no surprise I’m on my own now,” she sings on opening track ‘Lark’, but the truth is she’s never sounded less alone as on this album, where she’s joined by a 12-piece orchestra through the majority.
Previously Olsen has always managed to convey acidity, humour and intelligence simply with the deftness of her words and delivery. This continues on All Mirrors, and the additional instrumentation on her fourth record puts it all on a much grander stage, but could also be said to put a distance between listener and singer.
A key consideration is the genesis of All Mirrors, which was originally written and recorded as a stripped-back solo record that might still see the light of day eventually. Then her collaborative team of co-writerr Ben Babitt, producer John Congleton and arranger Jherek Bischoff seem to have diligently worked through the songs together, finding ways to enhance and deepen the feeling. Knowing this, the self-examining, isolated and turbulent perspective of the album feels more tangible - and the strings play a vital choric role, voicing underlying feelings.
The opening couplet of ‘Lark’ and ‘All Mirrors’ displays this expansive new sound in no uncertain terms. ‘Lark’ rises and falls with colossal tides of strings, Olsen’s voice commandingly riding the crest of the wave, the currents of the song pushing and pulling her to and from her former lover. Eventually she grasps control of the six-minute epic, emphatically repeating “DREAM ON”, the strings giving flight to her razor-edged feelings. Succeeding that is the title track, where Olsen is cloistered amidst rising walls of reflective violins shining her unadorned psyche back at her: “losing beauty/ at least at times it new me.” It's only been two songs, but Olsen's commitment to the theatricality makes it feel like we've already gone 10 rounds.
Even though the album then recedes into more subdued moods, the intensity of feeling remains burning. Guitar was Angel’s weapon of choice formerly, and is presumably how she wrote most of the songs on All Mirrors, but its presence is minimal, instead ceding space to the other instruments which can emphasise the softness or drama more acutely.
This is evident in ‘New Love Cassette’ where electric and synth bass give a warm fuzz to her promises, but when the strings rise up in cutting fashion, they seem to suggest Olsen’s restless spirit rebelling against settling down. On the following track ‘Spring’ she’s cradling a newborn child, but internally she’s fretting “I wish it were true love”; the strings remain absent, letting her indecisive thoughts run their course: “give me some heaven, just for a while.”
When Olsen is clearer in her feelings, the arrangements follow suit – whether they give a bounce to her cheekiness or add density to her misery. ‘Too Easy’ surges on driving synths, Olsen at her duplicitous best as she swears “I’d do anything for you,” only to coldly turn around and decide to go off in search of “something that was bigger than us” by the end of the effervescent song. ‘What It Is’ is another bounding, tongue-in-cheek pop song where she professes “you just wanted to forget that your heart was full of shit”, the strings are at their most animated and extroverted.
Then, on ‘Impasse’, they find her in the depths of despair, subtly stirring beneath her self-doubt before lifting her to the peak of fury as she strides out of misery and into a confident dawn - free and powerful. This theme follows into ‘Tonight’ where she softly appraises life alone, and the orchestra provides the perfect soundtrack for a romantic dinner for one.
The arc of All Mirrors rounds out with a finale the dynamic inverse of the theatrical opening – but it’s no less resounding. Penultimate track ‘Endgame’ feels physically closest to Olsen, as she’s finally found that something “bigger than ourselves” - but it wasn't enough: “I needed more than love from you.” Piano rises from the doldrums of her soul, and, together with whimsical drizzles of strings, she is lifted up to a heartbroken - but still standing - independent person.
The wounds haven’t exactly healed on the final track ‘Chance’, but she’s firmly owning the spotlight: “I’m walking through the scene/ I’m saying all the lines/ I wish I could unsee some things that gave me life.” Angel Olsen leaves us with the thought: “It’s hard to say forever love/ forever’s just so far/ Why don’t you say you’re with me now, with all of your heart.” It's a truly human sentiment that also reflects her musical evolution: Angel is unprepared to commit to anything in the long term, but is always fully committed to now, and this has allowed her to make her boldest and most purposeful step yet.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 4th October 2019.