Angel Olsen’s ‘All Mirrors’ Offers a Stunning Flash of Nostalgia and Prescience
Angel Olson made her debut in 2014 with a record called “Burn Your Fire For No Witness,”and that title basically gets the point across. Olson is on another level, possessing a musical instinct that’s able to tap into past eras with a rare authenticity and genuinity, coming across as a singer-songwriter of the highest ranks. Her latest album, “All Mirrors,” is a heavily string-based affair, with sonics rather equally based in the ‘60s and the ‘80s. Olsen taps into a spirit that makes it all work, and tackles a host of universally relatable issues in her lyrics with a voice and aesthetic that matches sound to ideas in a way that very few can do.
Opener “Lark” starts deep and dark, soft and intimate, immediately striking to the heart in a way that endures for the duration of the album. Out of the blue, Olsen surprises you with a grand sweeping chorush that truly delivers, Then, as if it’s no difference, she goes to cool and demure, softly suggesting, atop strings that get downright epic. A minute in, the album is already an emotional rollercoaster. Olsen keeps up with the strings, rising in tandem with them. At moments, the song recalls the music of Mattheah Baim, and most of all, it’s reminiscent of ‘60s girl groups and singers, the likes of Cilla Black. The song explores the poignant subject of how people are treated like disposable objects, when a relationship goes awry, leaving the more empathic of the pair baffled by how such heated emotions and close connections could simply dissipate.
The title track starts like some new age ‘80s-styled, self-aware silliness. There are definitely echoes of Kate Bush, and again a chorus that kills. Come the chorus, Olsen goes for the full ‘80s synthesizer string treatment, her voice booming, radiant, shifting tone suddenly in a way that’s transfixing in its visceral effect. The way she shifts registers so readily is pretty unprecedented in popular music — perhaps Billy Corgan would be an exemplar, but there are very few. The main lyrics are “Standin’, facin’, all mirrors are erasin’ / Losin’ beauty, at least at times it knew me.” It’s a nod to biological clocks and such, ringing in a “Picture of Dorian Gray” type of concern with loss of youth. It’s a bit like Ponce de León reimagined in a decidedly female voice. Truth be told, Olsen has nothing to worry about, but that’s the thought that led to this song.
“Too Easy” starts in a beam, leaving plenty glare, a true transportation to a dream. It’s even more ‘80s, even more Kate Bush than before. There’s a punchy synth melody, ebullient chord changes, and an ultimate shock factor. Olsen sings as enraptured, in love, and she’s able to express it with an authenticity that few can even come close to manage. ”New Love Cassette,” which must be appreciated from the title alone, begins with Olsen’s voice more intimate than ever, essentially a whisper, in the chorus, a mere suggestion of a melody, a fleeting thought only half expressed, giving the feeling thought of being enraptured, and giving a stream of consciousness commentary. String arrangements recall the grandeur of old school cinema, and it sounds like Olsen is singing in black and white, in full grandeur. It’s an inspirational, encouraging, optimistic love song with lyrics like “Gonna gather strength, give you all my mind / Wanna show you my love all the time.” The cheery outlook of the words is juxtaposed with a rather brooding sonic backdrop, that makes the point especially pop. The lyrics are weighty, with lines like “Remember when we said we’d never have children / I’m holdin’ your baby, now that we’re older,” delivered in a breezy way that, at moments, recalls the likes of Charlotte Gainsbourg.
The Kate Bush references keep coming, with the percussion, string arrangements and Olsen’s inflections on “What It Is” recalling “The Dreaming”-era Kate Bush, in all its fantastical, fanciful stylings. At this point, the strings are downright ridiculous. They’re an essential part of this album. This song is a cheery ditty in the tradition of the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” but with the twist of jabs like, “You just wanted to forget / That your heart was full of shit.”
“Impasse” is an emotive outpouring, with some wild synth sounds punctuating along the lines, just a touch making all the difference, while hissing violins create tension. It’s a bit of an outlier, in that Olsen sounds especially coy and held-back, then bursts into a chorus that’s beaming starlight fury all of a sudden. In the end, when she repeats, “I’m just livin’ in my head,” she again taps into a universal, yet rather unexplored, element of the alienated artist. “Tonight” focuses on a sole though, again with the breathy treatment, with all its emotional resonance, really honing in on a feeling, with Olsen repeating ”Without you” in a way that sears.
Upon “Summer,” things seem perhaps a little lagging, as if all the tricks are out of the bag, but come the bridge, it’s magic again.It’s a bit like the Napoleon Dynamite prom party, but if it were really cool. Olsen sings, “There was nothing left that I could lose,” before a snare drum buildup, and it’s the perfect match of music to lyrics. Come “Endgame,” we have taken on entirely different territory. Olsen has plays the role of nightclub chaunteneuse, evoking dim-lit atmospherics and all. It’s like an old Woody Allen, or even Martin Scorcese movie, in an intimate scene set in a bar of a certain era. “Chance” is the perfect closer, striking as if a meditative, elegant afterthought on the whole affair. There’s again the throwback bluesy, Sarah Vaugn type of vibe, but with Olsen’s distinctive imprint. It strikes like an overture, recapturing all the emotions addressed during the course of the album, and condensing and compressing them in a way that brilliantly gets the overarching idea across profoundly.
Angel Olsen is the type of artist that demands respect. Her music is very English in its stylings, compared to other Americsn music, but in a relatable way, for those in touch with our shared transatlantic history. All of Olsen’s albums have been extraordinary, but “All Mirrors” clearly supercedes them in every which way. Her singing alone would make for a stunning display, as she has a capacity and range almost unheard in popular music. Strings are a major factor in this album, and they suit Olsen perfectly, as she serves as something of a beacon of lost sounds revisited with spirit and compassion. Her lyrics are deep, insightful looks into the relationship, expressed in a voice and presentation that couldn’t better get the point across with beaming, astounding impact.
“All Mirrors” is available Oct. 4 on Apple Music.