Building on the success of her previous album, 2016’s My Woman, could have been a simple exercise for Angel Olsen. All too often, when artists have found a winning formula, they stick with it in order to ride the wave of success. But Olsen is not predisposed to taking the easy route. All Mirrors finds her pushing the envelope.
Opener Lark makes clear that she’s pulled off a significant trick in creating a sound that is both full yet entirely stripped back. Presumably this has been achieved in part by her writing process. Initially, the songs that make up All Mirrors were written in complete isolation, with Olsen attempting to make sense of her identity and the aftermath of a relationship falling apart. These themes can be heard early on when she states, “Hiding out inside my head, it’s me again, it’s no surprise, I’m on my own now”. But with some terrific string arrangements from Ben Babbitt and Jherek Bischoff, All Mirrors possesses not only an intensely intimate feel, but also a thunderous filmic weight. Most importantly, the string arrangements are not straightforward overlays, but instead hint at an avant garde, leftfield influence.
The result is that these compositions aren’t just simplistic ballads or pop tunes, but swirling and sometimes baffling explorations. That’s not to say that they meander without a sense of purpose. Rather, they pack an emotional punch that can catch you off guard. Lark, in particular, twists and turns, all booming drums and squalling strings with a vocal that sounds damaged, determined and innocent all at once. The constant shifting of dynamics pays off, switching from hushed atmospheres to explosive outbursts with breathtaking precision.
The title track finds Olsen reflecting on her life and identity and providing lump-in-the-throat exploration of the self. New Love Cassette takes things in a different direction. Still stripped to bare bones, it relies heavily on a basic electro-bass line and Olsen’s whisper-in-the-ear vocals. Basic it might well be, but there’s an assuredness to Olsen’s voice that wraps itself around the slightly sinister accompaniment. Within the lyrics there’s a twin narrative at play, with Olsen gathering her own strength, giving herself a pep talk, but also warning that she’s not going to hold back. “Gonna gather strength and give you all my mind” she intones, whilst also apparently trying to make the most of the single life and new possibilities with “love free, take me”.
Spring starts out like a tribute to Hey Jude, before the introduction of some queasy sounding synths, subverting what would otherwise be a fairly straight up homage, turning it into a kind of drunken lullaby to be sung when staring at the stars. Impasse finds Olsen pouring her heart out in the midst of a glorious cacophony of strings and cymbal crashes, whilst Summer is a deceptively light of touch, reminiscent of Björk‘s early solo work. It’s also the point when the positivity that’s only ever been hinted at starts to make itself known as Olsen sings “took a while but I made it through”. There’s still a palpable sense of hurt wrapped up in her voice, but the message is one of hope. By the time album comes to a close with the relatively straightforward piano and strings waltz of Chance, there’s a sense that she’s started to make steps towards resolution.
All Mirrors is at times a challenging listen. It subverts expectations, popular music tropes, and indeed its own source material (Olsen has plans to release an acoustic version of the album), whilst at the same time navigating its way through the quagmire of love, loss, self-doubt and finally, self-belief. Thankfully, Olsen, her arrangers and producer (The Paper Chase‘s John Congleton) have created an album that simply bulges with perfection and timeless songs.