On ‘All Mirrors,’ Angel Olsen is once again in a land all her own

by William Kast

On ‘All Mirrors,’ Angel Olsen is once again in a land all her own

Angel Olsen
All Mirrors

Jagjaguar · October 4, 2019

On ‘All Mirrors,’ Angel Olsen is once again in a land all her own

Angel Olsen introduced her music to the world from what seemed like a million miles away. Her debut EP, Strange Cacti, captured the sound of an abandoned church in the middle of the night, expansive and intimate. It immediately felt like a revelation — there was no one, there couldn’t be anyone else who conveyed as much passion as she did in her powerful, quavering voice. On All Mirrors, the landscape is barely recognizable, but for the first time since her brilliant debut, Angel Olsen is once again in a land all her own.

All Mirrors is a dark, dense record. Olsen’s voice, which has cut through roaring electric guitars and dark disco beats with ease, meets its first competition from the thick fog of strings and synthesizers in the opening two tracks, “Lark” and “All Mirrors.” The effect of this 11-minute barrage of drums and dissonant wash of strings is felt throughout the album, and the (relative) calm after the storm is only more beautiful because of it. From the hushed beginnings of “Tonight” and “Endgame” to the floating grooves of “Spring” and “Summer,” the consistently misty sonic palette never feels stagnant.

Yet, for all the variety in the production, All Mirrors could have sustained itself on Olsen’s voice alone. Across the album Olsen screams, whispers, cries, sneers, and makes every word count. There’s a new versatility to her voice on tracks like the Stereolab-nodding “Too Easy,” and she embraces heavier vocal processing on tracks like “What It Is,” both to great effect. But Olsen is undeniably at her best when her voice dominates the mix. “Chance,” the breathtaking closer, is one of the most powerful pieces of music released this year, and entirely anchored by Olsen’s voice.

Olsen shared that the album title came from the idea that “we are all mirrors to and for each other.” The notion expands far beyond the title track — for all the musings about love and relationships, her words always point inwards. In “Spring,” Olsen croons “Alive with the past no other can share / alone with a heart no other can bear / so give me some heaven, just for a while / make me eternal there in your smile.” The lyrics take turns between Olsen at her most self-aware and her unfiltered subconscious. On the same song, hardly a few bars pass between reflecting on a friend’s newborn child (“Time has revealed how little we know us”) and an unspoken declaration of love (“I wish this were true love, I wish we were kissing”).

The concept of mirrors also ties to a theme of beauty that’s ever-present in the words and music. The indulgent strings that carry carry multiple songs to completion and the prominent line “Losing beauty, at least at times it knew me” in the title track may point to vanity, but Olsen floats miles above any accusations of shallowness. Instead, it’s a sense of wonder – the freedom of being happy with oneself as on “Tonight,” or the thrill of breaking out of difficult times on “Summer,” and a moment of presence with another person on the album-closer “Chance.” The song is another Angel Olsen epic that feels over in an instant, and as Olsen sings “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,” there could be no more perfect bittersweet end to a stunning album.

All Mirrors was born out of Olsen revisiting several songs from her Strange Cacti days. Embracing the free-flowing composition of her early work, she wrote the entire album as solo songs and only brought in producer John Congleton and arrangers Ben Babbitt and Jherek Bischoff once that version was complete. The release of All Mirrors in solo form has not yet been confirmed, but live versions that have surfaced all but confirm that the magic that fans fell in love with on Strange Cacti is still intact. The glory of All Mirrors in its current form, however, cannot be denied. Finding a context that suits Olsen’s distinct voice has never been an issue, but something so unique and powerful can’t be relegated to dress-up, it needs something tailor-made. The crown that has replaced the tinsel wig couldn’t be a better fit.