Feels like the most fully-realized version of Olsen that we’ve gotten yet.
No matter how many people she has with her in the studio, Angel Olsen has always sounded alarmingly lonely. Her sound has unquestionably grown since her 2014 breakthrough, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, but even on the slightly larger in sound My Woman, it felt like there were two entities on any given song: Olsen, and the sound that threatened to swallow her up. Following the creation of My Woman, the songwriter began to question her own creative process and retreated to the damp and mossy climes of Anacortes, Washington to reset in solitude.
This plan fell through in the best possible way, as her return, All Mirrors, is far more massive in scale than anything she’s made before. Here, she gives us two modes: dark, synth-heavy quasi-pop songs, and tracks that soar with the help of a 12-piece orchestra. The two worlds bleed together with reckless abandon. Those worried that the inclusion of synth-pop elements in Olsen’s music will make her devolve into a morose pop star needn’t worry: these songs still have remarkable sonic heft, enough that you might not even realize that the album’s producer is none other than indie megaproducer John Congleton, who is rarely able to make a record without leaving his fingerprints everywhere.
Opener “Lark” introduces us to the push and pull of the album the orchestra carving out peaks and valleys alongside Olsen’s voice, which also never stays put for long. One minute she’s quietly singing about attempting to rewrite romantic history, the next she’s being drowned out by the looming strings behind her. These themes are mirrored throughout the album, and are specifically found on the title track. There, she allows her players to intermingle with longtime collaborator Ben Babbitt’s tasteful synth wizardry, before stripping the orchestra away for the surprisingly restrained “Too Easy,” where she asserts her dominance succinctly: “I’m not alone, I’m not.”
The aforementioned orchestra, helmed largely by the former Parenthetical Girls cohort/sonic wunderkind Jherek Bischoff, make these among the most engaging songs Olsen has ever recorded. “What Is It” comes in with a machine-like drum beat, the swell of strings slowly invading the track, building and pulling back and stabbing as though a flock of birds. Meanwhile, on “New Love Cassette,” the orchestra is tactically deployed to give the song a potent dose of high drama. In addition to Olsen’s voice, All Mirrors offers a chance to marvel at how supremely talented Bischoff is as a composer, his arrangements always fascinating enough that you wonder why he isn’t a household name by now.
All Mirrors runs the emotional gamut, continuing her streak of making songs that are hyper-aware of her need to harden her heart, but still haunted by complicated human emotions. Take “Spring,” the closest link to the sound of My Woman and perhaps her most straightforward song of the bunch. Here, Olsen doesn’t sound defeated, but rather resigned to how romance really works: “Show me a love that/ Won’t ever leave or look for another… Guess we’re just at the mercy/ Of the way that we feel.” It sounds like something that wouldn’t have felt out of place on Natalie Prass’ The Future and the Past. Later, the aching, slow-paced “Tonight” sees her finding peace in independence: “I like the air that I breathe/ I like the thoughts that I think/ I like the life that I lead/ Without you,” she sings, channeling the spirit of “Since U Been Gone.”
If there’s one thing that holds All Mirrors back, it’s that one can be worn down by it. These are densely packed songs, and Olsen’s often minimalist writing can make it hard to hold on through the rise and fall of some songs. The towering, doom-laden “Impasse” springs to mind. There’s also “Endgame,” a gorgeous but somewhat sluggish song that doesn’t sound far off from When the Pawn…-era Fiona Apple. While it does sound fantastic in its own right, the track feels like an odd fit after the more straightforward, reverb-heavy “Summer.” But these are minor quibbles.
Simply put, All Mirrors feels like the most fully-realized version of Olsen that we’ve gotten yet. It isn’t even the only version we’ll get: Olsen’s original intent was to release All Mirrors alongside a solo version of the album. It’s hard to imagine what these songs in that form will sound like, removed from these incredible arrangements. All Mirrors may not push her any further into the mainstream, but it sets a high bar for Olsen.