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Angel Olsen’s All Mirrors Leaps Forward in Sound and Self

on October 02, 2019, 7:02am

In 2016, Angel Olsen erupted onto the forefront of indie rock with My Woman. Four years after she had electrified listeners with the might of a folk-rock Goliath on Half Way Home and just two removed from the louder, pulsating sonority of Burn Your Fire for No Witness, Olsen doubled-down on her old-timey charm with My Woman, delivering a collection of razor-sharp love dissections.

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The catch? Each song skirted along under the cover of illusory, jovial arrangements. “Heaven hits me when I see your face,” the album opens with a child-like flight of fancy. It plays like a sticky, pink gum bubble popped swiftly with a poke to the face as she repeats, “You’ll never be mine.” For listeners, it’s like watching a sick cinematic montage of a murderess flipping on a ’60s jukebox before plunging her knife into a victim. It was all very American Psycho. It was all undeniably magnetic and irrevocably electric. It absolutely ruled.

Now, folk rock’s most unfettered leviathan returns with her fourth full-length, All Mirrors. A beguiling spell book of evolutionary incantations both in sound and in self, her latest LP sees the songstress leap out of the jukebox, taking a sledgehammer to the lighthearted lunacy of love so deeply embedded in My Woman’s DNA. What’s left in that furious wake are ragged, reflective bits of glass pieced together with the dense glue of mantra-like incantations and doom-laden orchestrations. Co-produced by John Congleton with arrangements from Jherek Bischoff and Ben Babbitt, each of All Mirrors’ 11 tracks present instrumentation as harrowing and huge as the corporeal and dramatic words that accompany them.

The Good: Keeping with Olsen’s ability to continuously leap forward, All Mirrors moves on from My Woman’s penchant to romanticize the reality of desperately loving another. In its place is an homage to the self-reliant strength it takes to widen one’s lens on the world. Make no mistake, we’re dealing with a record about the fragility behind the blistering autonomy we’ve come to associate Olsen with, the intense vulnerability in becoming — the most difficult mortal task of them all. As Olsen puts it, her latest effort is “about owning up to your darkest side, finding the capacity for new love and trusting change even when you feel like a stranger.” Amidst all this change, Olsen still manages to keep signature lawless vocal affectations intact to will her music forward, but the sounds are bolder, the sentiment is heavier, and the stakes are higher.

All Mirrors opens with a simple pair of statements steeped in the weariness of a lifetime lived beyond the confines of a song: “To forget you is to lie there is still so much left to recover/ If only we could start again pretending we don’t know each other.” Barely 20 seconds into “Lark” and Olsen breaks down the closed doors to reveal a microcosm of her opus, a song, and album that retraces life’s steps quietly and steadily, building in internal friction until we reach total auditory and mental panic: “Hiding out inside my head/ It’s me again/ It’s no surprise I’m on my own now.” Yet, just when we are let down in raw, gutted catharsis and the music seems to have quieted, backing violins begin to wail and Olsen bangs on the walls. Howling “dream on” and “What about my dreams?/ What about the heart?” Having survived an all-out orchestral anxiety attack, we’re ushered into the title track to face ourselves head-on.

These histrionic whirls, coupled with simple melodic patterns that swell and recede just like our perception of the world around us, write All Mirrors into the book of songs that exist without a timeline. It’s an Olsen-led amble through the emotional landscapes of life, and we can’t get enough. “Too Easy” is a saccharine amalgamation that quietly contemplates moving from the hypnotism of a dreamy la vie en rose to the stark, synth realization that “after the weight come down I looked around and found something else/ Something that was bigger than us.” And on “Spring”, Olsen begins to bloom with the realization that life passes us by at the drop of a pin. “Wow time has revealed how little we know us/ I’ve been too busy, I should’ve noticed,” she sings of the hard-won acceptance of the future’s ambiguity. It’s a ballad-sized slap in the face that reminds me to look up from my word processor every once in a while.

There seem to be no bottlenecks in Olsen’s 11 track herstory. Even the slow-crawl of “Tonight”, a song that sounds like Olsen is singing post-breakup self-affirmations through a stream of tears, stands out as a highlight upon further listens. “Summer” follows shortly after, a rollicking tune seemingly plucked from the introspective spaghetti western of your choice. It’s not hard to imagine Olsen blowing on her smoking gun after singing about eradicating toxic people from her life: “And all those people I thought knew me well/ After all that time they couldn’t tell/ How I lost my soul was just a shell/ There was nothing left that I could lose.”

The Bad: The bad in Olsen’s All Mirrors is negligible. On an album sold as heavy with the levity of self-reflection and acceptance, we know what we’re getting into. Yet at times it feels like there is so much Angel and so little room for the listener. Confined to her mirrored room, we sit crouched with no exit, unable to cut through the noise of a deafening orchestra to catch our breaths and gather our own thoughts. Whether that’s a bad thing, well, that’s up to you.

The Verdict: With All Mirrors, Angel Olsen delivers a body of work for pained introverts who have weathered the internal storm, finally seeing (and accepting) the light and shadow in themselves and in life. At the end of the 11 tracks, Olsen stands bare and tall, accompanied by such a full-bodied orchestration that each song seems to be of biblical proportions. All Mirrors is a successful example of how being bold and staying true to yourself pays off. Undeniably, this is Olsen’s most cohesive, self-aware, and searing album to date, and the era of Olsen is far from finished.

Essential Tracks: “Lark”, “All Mirrors”, and “Summer”

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