Angel Olsen Triumphs on the Stunning “All Mirrors”

“Lark,” the opening track on Angel Olsen’s new album, All Mirrors, is an astonishing song: starting at a barely audible volume, it builds through six minutes of huge dynamic shifts before ending with Olsen practically screaming over loud strings that sound kind of like fireworks going off, as if the world is crashing down around her. Its loose, disjointed structure makes it feel like a high-wire act with Olsen barely keeping her balance. The rest of All Mirrors has a similar energy, owing to her manic ambition, but Olsen never falls off the wire. Like professionals in that field, she’s putting on a show that seems risky when really she is in complete control of the situation, and it leaves witnesses asking “how did they do that?”

Ironically, one of the reasons I’ve never been hugely into Olsen prior to this album is that I didn’t think her music was ambitious enough. Burn Your Fire for No Witness is loved by many, but I was never grabbed by its deliberately lo-fi style, which obscured her ability. I liked My Woman a lot more because she seemed to gain confidence and realize she could belt songs out and still shine even with increased production values. But All Mirrors so thoroughly blows the doors off those albums that it has the effect of making her past music seem quaint. Likely inspired by the extensive scientific research indicating that strings make everything better, she surrounds herself with sweeping orchestral arrangements along with synths, and for the first time it feels like her talent is on the stage it deserves.

Olsen is shooting for high drama on this album, which is a dangerous game to play: go too far and it comes off as cheesy and melodramatic; don’t go far enough and it might just be boring. She and producer John Congleton (who has seemingly recorded 90% of music I listen to this year) go all in with the strings and production flourishes, which might turn off fans of hers used to a more grounded style. But Olsen’s ambition never outpaces her skill, and her voice is such a powerful instrument that it cuts through any amount of production and sound. This is not a comparison I make lightly, but this whole album reminds me of Björk, whose music is often dense and experimental, but tied together by undeniable artistry and a distinct voice that is impossible to ignore.

Part of the ambition of All Mirrors is in its variety of songs, which display all the different facets of Olsen’s tremendous vocal ability. “Lark” itself presented a wide range, but the following 10 tracks show so much more. On “Too Easy” she sings with a softer feminine touch, sighing her lyrics above the sound, while on “New Love Cassette” she practically mumbles and blurs into the synths. The closing tracks, “Endgame” and “Chance” are each throwback ballads like from old movies, with Olsen crooning in a more classic, vintage style. While working in a distinctive slow-tempo, orchestral mode, Olsen finds so many ways to show different sides of herself — as a vocal showcase, this is an impressive of an album as I can remember.

Olsen’s style lends itself to melancholy subject matter, and this doesn’t surprise in that regard except that the songs are cloaked in more ambiguity than before. Maybe it’s just that there are songs called “Spring” and “Summer” and this is being released right at the start of autumn, but the album’s variety and the way it’s sequenced makes me think of the passing of seasons and time. The title track indicates her interest in the possible parallel universes that exist with all of the different choices we’ve made that define who we are, and how we sometimes look back at them with regret. Most of this is through the lens of relationships and striving to live in the moment instead of dwelling on the past or fearing the future. The strings lend a gravitas to Olsen’s words and are a critical part of why every song feels like it has high emotional stakes.

What makes this album feel so real is the way Olsen’s themes of growing up and changing are mirrored by her own evolution as an artist. Even with the dramatic performances and more stagey presentation, everything is still grounded in genuine emotion that connects. The feeling I got that Olsen’s previous music undersold her ability makes me wonder if it took her awhile to find her true confidence, even as she was making acclaimed albums. All Mirrors has the feel of an album she’s been building to her whole career, with all of her previous work serving as a warm-up before the real show — and what a show it is.

Bat For Lashes Returns to Her Roots on “Lost Girls”

Bat For Lashes’ previous album, The Bride, wasn’t exactly a crowd-pleaser: a slow, deadly serious collection of songs about a woman whose husband-to-be dies on her wedding day. While I argued at the time (and still do) that it was an emotionally powerful and worthwhile record that took some audaciousness to release, it was easy to see why many found it unengaging. It’s also easy to see why she chose a more accessible direction on her new album, Lost Girls, which feels like a much-deserved vacation after such heavy material. It’s a shimmering, upbeat pop album that sounds like a love letter to the 80s music and cinema she grew up with.

If you’re like me, the last part raises some eyebrows, since we’re currently at peak “have you heard of this thing called the 80s” culture from Stranger Things and a gaggle of artists embracing that synth pop sound. And like it was hard to argue with The Bride being too slow and difficult, it’s also hard to take issue with anyone who is turned off by the nostalgia and references at play here. But I think it works on this album because Bat for Lashes is referencing a past she actually experienced, and I sense a genuine appreciation for the material she’s referencing instead of it being a cynical nostalgia-grab or put-on. Her whole career proves this in a way, because she was working with these sounds and reference points years ago before it became a cool thing to do. Lost Girls feels more like her coming full circle than her jumping on the bandwagon of 80s mythologizing.

What also helps Lost Girls become more than the sum of its nostalgic parts is that, well, the songs are great. Similar to some other pop acts I’ve appreciated in recent years like Kristin Kontrol and Carly Rae Jepsen, this album has a charming “I’m just here to write memorable pop songs” energy coming from an artist with a deep knowledge of the craft. The first five tracks on this album could all be classified as “jams” (good songs), starting with the lush “Kids in the Dark,” which introduces the album’s themes of young love that are further established on “The Hunger,” which has a similar slow-burn style with an organ added to the mix. “Feel For You” feels almost like a conscious attempt to see how simple she can make a song with it still being good — it’s just a recurring synth part and the lyric “I love you; I feel for you” over and over, yet it doesn’t feel underwritten to me in any way. The sparkling “Desert Man” and the whispery, seductive “Jasmine” close out this opening salvo of tracks, all of which prove that Bat For Lashes can still write catchy, listenable pop — she just didn’t feel like doing it on The Bride.

The instrumental “Vampires” segues into the final few tracks, most of which are slower ballads that are in the conventional Bat For Lashes style (meaning slow and beautiful). While this album lacks the emotional punch of The Bride, it’s a useful companion for showing another side of her artistry, and it’s satisfying to hear an album that doesn’t overreach. Without having some grand contrived narrative, Lost Girls still creates its own world that evokes feelings of youthful innocence and imagination.

“Zdenka 2080” is a Quirky, Cosmic Adventure

People often approach me and ask me “Josh, what do you think music needs more of? By the way I’m a huge fan and love what you do.” I always look them straight in the eye and answer: “we need more music that embraces whimsy and we need more concept albums about traveling into other dimensions.” Lindsay Olsen, who records as Salami Rose Joe Louis (I’m going to refer to her as “Salami” because that seems fun) has delivered my request with her new album,  Zdenka 2080,  which is delightfully bonkers and one of the year’s most creative records.

It takes place in a dystopian future where, as outlined in the second track, “Octagonal Room,” corporations have used the power of the sun to fuel a giant spaceship. When the earth begins to cool, they flee the planet in their ship, leaving the earthlings to inhabit a cold, dark earth. One of those earthlings then stumbles upon an octagonal room with eight paintings, all of which lead into another dimension, and she searches through each dimension to try to find a way to save earth. This gets even weirder through the album, and I’ll resist sharing more of the plot, partially because I don’t want to give it all away and partially because I’m still not sure if I really understand it (or if I’m supposed to).

The plot is told through occasional expositional narratives backed by the music, but for the most part its purpose is to provide a narrative thread that connects all of the tracks, which are quick 1-2 minute collages of abstract pop that are reminiscent of some of Broadcast’s later work with The Focus Group. Salami’s wispy, soulful vocals combined with her quirky retro-futuristic electronics make for a relaxed mood that lets the listener get sucked in and appreciate her mad creativity at work. She is also a planetary scientist, so there is some appropriate science nerdery in the lyrics with songs called “Diatoms and Dinoflagellates” and “Transformation of a Molecule.”

There aren’t really traditional verses or choruses on Zdenka 2080. There is more a collection of intriguing sounds, with memorable keyboard hooks or vocal melodies coming and going quickly as Salami throws all of her musical ideas out there. “Meet Zee in 3-D/Third Dimension” has a beautiful dreamy segment that is probably my favorite part of the album thus far. After a brief keyboard-backed narration at the start, “Love the Sun” turns into a more upbeat piece of lounge pop that would make Stereolab proud.  While many concept albums go for epic scale, Zdenka 2080 is strengthened by its economy of sound and thought, which gives it a wide variety of sounds that don’t overstay their welcome.

On paper (or screen, I guess) this might all sound like a bit much. In practice, Salami weaves all of these elements of the music and story together in a way that feels cohesive. In the context of music now, this is a really refreshing album — one that commits to its ambitious concept and fully embraces the idea of music as a way to expand the listener’s mind, to make them think and wonder. These days, I get a lot of joy out of hearing music that is so willing to be quirky and strange.