Angel Olsen’s voice is her calling card. Over the course of four increasingly confident, expansive-sounding albums – Strange Cacti and Half Way Home’s lonesome, ghostly, country-inflected folk; Burn Your Fire for No Witness and My Woman’s bigger, more rock- and electronic-oriented indie rock – that singular instrument has been the force behind the material. It is a pliable, powerful tool, capable of speaking, wailing, moaning, warming – sometimes in the same song. It conveys great emotion and a sense of timelessness, always evoking the comforting familiarity of crooners, country singers, and girl groups gone by. It is put to tremendous use on All Mirrors – her most startling undertaking to date.
Born from creative risk, All Mirrors (out Oct. 4 via Jagjaguwar) is a deeply romantic, vulnerable, and confident statement about, in Angel Olsen’s words, “facing yourself and learning to forgive what you see…walking away from the noise and realizing that you can have solitude and peace in your own thoughts, alone, without anyone to know it or validate it.” Originally conceptualized as two albums built on one set of songs – one of bare-bones solo recordings, made with producer Michael Harris, and one with a full band, each set to be released simultaneously – the project began to mutate through the collaborative process.
Producer John Congleton (who also helmed Burn Your Fire…), orchestral arranger Jherek Bischoff, multi-instrumentalist/arranger/pre-producer Ben Babbitt, and a 14-piece orchestra worked with Olsen to bring her sketches to life in brilliant color. While Olsen was initially reluctant to view the two pieces as a single one, each informed by the other, the power of the ensuing music made it apparent that it was time to let go of her plan and embrace spontaneity.
The music on All Mirrors manages to be both intimate and massive, in large part due to Bischoff’s string arrangements. The orchestral touches are deployed with masterful touch and devastating effect, reminiscent of John Metcalfe’s on Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back – there is little subtlety, but even at their biggest, they never fall into bombast. The songs hop easily back and forth between decades, with a magpie-eye approach to various musical periods that strengthens the material.
Opener “Lark” sounds like Patsy Cline backed by a Phil Spector production and recorded in the Grand Canyon; it’s a huge, slow burn, built on cascading strings that form a lush backdrop for a one of Olsen’s most powerful vocal performances (and best songs) to date. “Impasse” has movie soundtrack drama with an underlying, orchestra-fueled queasiness; “Tonight” is a pure torch song but flipped, touched by loss but reveling in the discovery of personal strength: “Like how its all coming clear / All the words that I hear / Like how I’m not in fear / Without you” sings Olsen, vocals fluttering delicately by.
Balladry has always looked good on Olsen – “Endgame” hints at the late night, empty street romance of Nelson Riddle’s arrangements for Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours and Only the Lonely, while “Chance” is a blown-up doo wop song with yet another crushing vocal turn – but All Mirrors is not defined by melancholy. Olsen and collaborators’ employ a decade-hopping approach that gives the album a sense of timelessness. There are noticeable touchstones that become something new when filtered through Olsen’s distinct sensibility.
There are ‘80s-inflections throughout: “All Mirrors” sounds like the soundtrack to a John Hughes film, mixed with the spaciousness of Frankie Rose’s amazing (and criminally underrated) Interstellar; “Too Easy” is all woozy synths and a softly insistent chorus, while “Summer” leans into “West End Girls” synth pads before touching on ‘70s Fleetwood Mac. “What It Is” bounces like a lost ELO track, while “Spring” sounds like it could have been made by Harry Nilsson, wounded but emboldened by the previous night’s bender. The ‘90s are here as well: “New Love Cassette” mixes Portishead-esque noir, a hip-hop break, and a sense of flux, constantly on the edge of detuning but buffeted ever-forward by a river of strings.
These elements cohere into a thrilling listen, with Olsen’s songcraft and that singular weapon of a voice still at the center. As difficult as giving up total control of the music must have been, Olsen decision to reject a carefully considered plan and trust in the direction of the unfolding creative process is a brave choice that pays off in spades. All Mirrors is definitively the best album of her career – a sterling example of the benefits of collaboration, and a true case of the process gone right.
Words by Andrew Ledford
Top photo courtesy if Cameron McCool