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.

The Real Angel Olsen Has Arrived

As someone who does the whole “having critical opinions about music” thing, I often find myself forming backseat ideas of where artists I feel have potential should go with their work. I’m sure all fans do this on some level, where they form expectations for upcoming releases and hope it lives up to them. But I don’t know if people who aren’t deep into this music criticism hole can fully appreciate how satisfying it is when an artist does exactly what you hoped they would.

Angel Olsen has done that on her new single, “All Mirrors,” which is my favorite song of the year by some margin, to the point that I’m listening to it almost non-stop, and when I’m doing anything else I’m thinking “I wish I was listening to ‘All Mirrors’ right now.” This is one of those perfect songs where the artist finally figures out who she is (or at least who I want her to be, which works all the same in my book).

I’m not a big fan of folk/alt country music, so I wasn’t too interested in Olsen’s acclaimed early albums. It wasn’t until her last album, My Woman, that I thought she showed how much talent and charisma she has, particularly on songs like “Shut Up Kiss Me” and its psychedelic centerpiece, “Sister.” On her new single, she’s ditched the guitars entirely and gone full-blown dramatic synth goth. It’s a breathtaking song and video that warrants comparisons to the heavy-hitters of this style of large-scale pop: Kate Bush and Björk (especially the Homogenic and Vulnicura eras). But Olsen’s voice is distinctive enough that it doesn’t feel like she’s copying anyone — this sound is hers more than any of her previous material.

It’s funny that this comes on the heels of that Sleater-Kinney song, where the band went synth and it didn’t fit any of them and made no sense. Whereas on this song, Olsen is exactly where she should be. Her voice sounds better than it ever has in this setting and her lyrics are actually more impactful when surrounded by the cinematic synths, beats, and strings. I’m not one to comment on artists’ appearances much, but I also feel a certain journalistic responsibility to point out that she looks like a god in this video, which has kind of a Sunset Boulevard vibe when combined with the lyrics about “losing beauty.” Every element of this just fits and if this represents the direction of her next album, I am very excited.

Something that has always bothered me about the discourse surrounding folk music is this assumption that artists who only play a guitar and whisper in their songs convey more authenticity and emotion than artists who go for bigger, more dramatic sounds. There are already plenty of counterpoints to that, but this song proves that Olsen’s music is more powerful and real than ever, even as she leaves that style in the dust.

#5: Angel Olsen – “My Woman”

Prior to 2016, I had written off Angel Olsen as one of those no-fun Americana/folk artists that is clearly talented but doesn’t quite grab me with her music. That said, I’m a very generous, fair person, so I gave My Woman a shot to see if Olsen could win me over.

Well, she did, and My Woman might be the album that surprised me the most this year. I did not expect Olsen to bust out this garage-rocky, psychedelic sound, to have this kind of charisma as a performer, or to have songs that have such legitimate pop hooks. On “Shut Up Kiss Me” she channels Gwen Stefani (but like, in a good way) and pretty much sounds like a rock star, while “Intern” shows her pure ability as a singer and lyricist who can still sell the hell out a ballad. It all builds up to “Sister,” a nearly eight minute jam that seamlessly melds indie rock, traditional singer-songwriter, and the folk/lo-fi style she was initially known for.

Olsen expands her sound and style on My Woman, but does it in a way that is very true to herself and retains what made people like her in the first place — it’s a big album, but it often feels very small. It pulls off a delicate trick, which is satisfying her existing fans while also pushing herself artistically and winning over new ones like me.