Angel Olson soars to dazzling heights on ‘All Mirrors’

Folk artist Angel Olsen released her fourth studio album, “All Mirrors,” on Oct. 4. The record has garnered acclaim from various music critics, including Guest Columnist Emma Bauchner, who calls it “the most fully realized version of her music imaginable.” Courtesy of Kenny Su

Angel Olsen has never been one to stick to a formula. From the quiet folk of “Strange Cacti,” to the confessional alt-country of “Halfway Home,” to the energized Lo-fi indie rock of “Burn Your Fire for No Witness,” to the almost anthemic rock songs of “My Woman,” each of her albums has developed a unique artistic palette and pushed her sound to new heights. Her latest project, “All Mirrors,” is no exception. Complete with a 12-piece string section, her expansive new music often has the sheen of finished pop songs, but not without sacrificing anything that makes them distinctly Angel Olsen.

In fact, Olsen’s music has always contained a sort of epic drama that has shone through in all of its various sonic incarnations. Take one of her earliest tracks: “Creator, Destroyer,” off of the album “Strange Cacti,” originally released on cassette nearly 10 years ago. On it, Olsen only accompanies herself with hushed acoustic guitar: “And I never seem to notice/It’s too late before I know that all/The love inside has been empty/The world we made has been ending/And like a ghost that hangs around and won’t forgive its earthly sins/I’ve carried on this love for you/It’s how my body lives.” Paired with Olsen’s swooning, uniquely expressive vocals, it’s an utterly heart-wrenching moment, so deeply felt despite the sparse, Lo-fi production.

With “All Mirrors,” Olsen has channeled the same sweeping drama of her early discography through all the elements of her sound, harmoniously matching content with form. In many ways, it’s the most fully realized version of her music imaginable.

Album opener “Lark” is a stunning example. In the song’s first few seconds, a cacophonous yet subtle chorus of strings gently emerges, littered with melodious harmonics. The strings are then partially obscured by quiet, steady guitar chords, as Olsen begins to sing a verse that recalls her earlier music: “To forget you is too hard, there’s still so much left to recover/If only we could start again, pretending we don’t know each other.” With each line she murmurs, the instrumentation continues to build until exploding into the climactic hook, complete with bass, percussion and (of course) plenty of strings: “Hiding out inside my head, it’s me again, it’s no surprise I’m on my own now/Every time I turn to you I see the past, it’s all that lasts and all I know how.” As Olsen belts and almost screams these lines, reaching an octave above her opening register, it’s hard to avoid being swept off your feet by the majestic combination of vocals, lyrics and instrumentation.

What eventually became the soaring, grandiose arrangements of “All Mirrors” started as something much more subdued. Following the immense success of Olsen’s previous album, 2017’s “My Woman,” exhaustion from newfound fame and constant touring left Olsen feeling like she had lost a bit of herself. Seeking relief, she revisited older material, experimented with solo performances and eventually recorded new music in remote Anacortes, Washington. The Anacortes sessions purportedly recall the aesthetics of her earlier music: stripped down and deeply personal. Olsen was satisfied with these recordings, but also opted to record a more fleshed-out version of the album with a number of collaborators; the two were initially intended to be released side-by-side.

However, the second version of the album proved to be a larger project than expected: “It was impossible for me to deny how powerful and surprising the songs had become,” stated Olsen in a press release. “The truth is that I may have never allowed this much sonic change in the first place had I not already made an account of the same songs in their purest form” (“Angel Olsen Drops Dark New Song, ‘All Mirrors,’” Variety, 07.30.2019). Ultimately, Olsen decided to release these songs in their fullest form first; the Anacortes version will be released sometime next year.

It will be fascinating to hear these songs as they were originally written and recorded. But Olsen is right: The expanded version of “All Mirrors” more than stands on its own. Along with “Lark,” other highlights include “New Love Cassette,” a song about giving yourself fully to love with a driving, seductive bassline; “Spring,” a wistful reflection on getting older; and “Summer,” a dance-ready track about looking ahead after bad times.

Olsen stays true to her penchant for heartbreaking album closers with the sweepingly cinematic “Chance.” The rich arrangements swoon with Olsen’s vocals as she takes stock of her present: “I’m leaving once again/Making my own plans/I’m not looking for the answer/Or anything that lasts/I just want to see some beauty/Try and understand.” Olsen does a lot of reflecting on “All Mirrors,” but the message she ends with is one of living in the moment: “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 beautifully poignant way to end what may be her best album yet.

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