Angel Olsen’s “All Mirrors:” Shadow and Light

In All Mirrors, night falls on Angel Olsen’s universe. The album is a seductive invitation to the shadowy, chrome world of the nocturnal, and—against the darkness—Olsen glitters.

It’s cool, it’s so cool; it sounds like how 5 Gum thinks 5 Gum feels. Characterized by her mercurial voice—sometimes crooning, sometimes airy, always doing exactly what she wants it to—Olsen’s music has always felt like a gift from another time or place. Her early work—Strange Cacti and Half-Way Home (2011)—was folk recorded in outer space. Burn Your Fire For No Witness (2014) saw Olsen visit the bouncing world of Roy Orbison guitar-rock. In My Woman (2016), Olsen upped the ante, embracing the energy of Burn Your Fire, intensifying the gravity of her songwriting and adding synths.

All Mirrors’ opening track, “Lark,” is a sprawling, six-minute odyssey that sits at the apex of Olsen’s past-and-present sound. The song begins in a cloud as Olsen’s voice floats over a bed of strings and strummed guitar. A pulsing, off-kiltered groove enters underneath, giving structure to Olsen’s mercurial melody. A snare hit erupts and the top blows off Olsen’s vocals—she’s back. 

The production builds as a piercing string section intermittently dive bombs Olsen’s harmony, pulling the song in and out of dissonance. At the five-minute mark, the climb reaches its peak as the song erupts into an absolutely disgusting explosion of guitars, strings, and vocals. “What about my dreams? / What about the heart?” Olsen exclaims to her bygone lover with a masterful balance of strength and vulnerability.

Too often, “let’s add a string section” is code for “the song sucks,” a wall-of-sound crutch for boring harmony and anemic writing. In All Mirrors, however, Olsen’s songwriting is stronger than ever, reaching deeper into the familiar and summoning the strange. 

In “Endgame,” a detective’s cigarette smoke wafts through shuttered greyscale rays of light. In “What It Is,” Olsen revisits the galloping world of her rockabilly roots, adding a string section that sits halfway been A Moon Shaped Pool and Sgt. Peppers. When I get to “New Love Cassette,” I’m soaring. It’s like an indie-rock, synth-pop Batman soundtrack, driven by the currents of synth-bass. 

At times, I miss the gnarly guitars of My Woman; the buoyant, raw energy of Burn Your Fire For No Witness; and the yodel-adorned folk of Strange Cacti and Half-Way Home. To call All Mirrors a step in the right direction feels wrong, but it’s a step nonetheless—and a great one, at that. 

Olsen perches maximalist production atop exquisite songwriting that is both challenging and accessible; lyrics that are simultaneously heartbreaking and invigorating; and towering yet intimate vocal performances that manifest her divine moniker eleven times over.

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