by DJ Maybe, Shay Leigh
Angel Olsen covers so much ground: psychedelic, pop, folk, rock, soundtrack. She blurs the lines between all these sounds and provides us with a 5-headed orchestral movement. Ever-apparent in her recent release, All Mirrors. As the title shows, a mirror is called upon as a lens for the album’s storytelling. A mirror, a reflection, a regression, an infinity. Each song could be different reflections of Olsen, the light beams bouncing from one surface to another. A multifaceted image. Each song feels like a refraction, like the speaker’s open wounds, move the mirrors ever-so slightly so that the whole image is adjusted. Olsen’s sound is crystal. Glittering, and shooting with conviction in every direction. Like a funhouse in Angel Olsen’s theme park, at once theatrically amusing and confusing, thought-provokingly complex and so hauntingly simple that thinking too hard about it opens a portal to another dimension: is this a Madonna impersonator, or are we in the year 3008 living on Mars? Her folk and garage vocal stylings find its way to the surface and you’re able to locate her sound in what could feel like a new genre. Whether it is or not is up for question. What is apparent, is that light passes through the sound in every which way; every time you listen you feel something new. Here are what two of our staff members thought of the album.
DJ Maybe, Poetry in Motion
The album outlines a distinct arc, a path: easy to trace but not easy to feel. Where the speaker falls in and out of love with someone, with herself, and with the journey. She dwells on her decisions, moves through both the positive and negative repercussions, and examines what comes next. The album’s speaker feels, to me, like someone looking forward, strong and stoic, into a mirror that has seen everything with godlike omniscience. Though she is positioned forward, and upward, she is painfully aware of what is behind her, as the mirror displays it all in her view.
Song by Song
The strings on Lark are reminiscent of the Beatles’ Within You Without You arrangement. Sweeping, light, airy, and dramatic. Lyrically, Olsen knows exactly what to say. And her presence is felt, even in moments where she doesn’t sing. Olsen keeps building on herself with every album, she keeps shapeshifting, getting better. In a completely organic and genius, well thought out way. This time she hypnotizes, the echoes of her voice ring in your ears and the strings, as they weave, lift you up. She sings in repetition, “Dream on, dream on, dream on.” And you are captivated.
“What about my dreams?!”, she sings in the track’s climax. It turns the song in a different direction, where it isn’t just a love song, by switching the listener’s point of view, Olsen forces you to look her in the eyes as she presents to you, her truth. A theme that continues to be felt through the album. Lark is the perfect opener.
The title track confirms to the listener, that we’re watching a personal past repeat. In the mirror, she sees her past approaching, haunting. This song is a familiar struggle, one where you think about what has happened, and your image isn’t what you know it as anymore. “At least at times it knew me.” She repeats as the song fades out, almost emotionless.
The chorus of All Mirrors is a pulse you feel deep. One that gets you dancing, and also listening closely, as to not miss any of her story.
The double header opening of Lark into All Mirrors feels momentous, almost unbelievable. How can there be 9 more songs? Where is this going? And then Too Easy begins…
The drums punch and punctuate, perfectly complimenting her voice that is tracked in such a way that it presents a depth in unison. The melody, catchy, simple. It’s probably the song with the most pop in it, but it becomes a hybrid of pop and psych garage. And you can’t help but move your body and close your eyes.
New Love Cassette
This song begins with a heavy droning synth. It’s in this track where I can hear John Congleton’s production style. Like Sharon Van Etten’s track “Jupiter 4”, the synth lays foundation for any world that wants to inhabit it. I love the quaking vocals on this track, and how they layer on top of each other in the harmonies. Listening feels like your glasses fogging up, feels close and personal. She sounds effortless. When the strings hit, they hit heavy and you’re reminded Olsen doesn’t need the fuzzy garage sound of My Woman to rock.
Spring paints a scene of domesticity and bitterness, of lovelessness. Her melody weaves up and down and around. Her voice returns to the focal point, like the Angel we know from Burn Your Fire for No Witness, another John Congleton co-production. She shows us her voice’s signature inflections, her quirks, her character, and then she seizes it from our grasp.
What It Is
This track begins galloping, and Olsen expands on the theme of “ease.”
She tells a certain “You” what would be easy, singing with the knowledge of that her reality is far from her fantasy of ease. “You just wanted to forget” she sings in the chorus, and the 2nd syllable in “forget” hangs over the punctuation, downward, like she’s coming to terms with the fact. The strings add drama through the verses, inhaling and exhaling with her phrases and decorating with quick movements.
Towards the end, the sound lets up, the galloping, sturdy beat, leads you to a slowdown, to an Impasse.
She starts tame, reflecting, taking stock. And she strikes with the conviction she started the record with. She came here to communicate with us.
“I never lost anyone”
Which is something that is worth bragging about, she isn’t bragging. She repeats it, and sounds like she’s coming to terms with actually having lost someone. She lingers off, in defeat, and the strings become thin following right behind her.
Dialing down, she moves to Tonight
Healing is a fluid dance. One where the tide pulls out and flows back in.
I like the life that I lead, without you.
Olsen comes to terms with where she is, and what she wants. I like this track because she doesn’t sound happy about this. This is bittersweet, growth isn’t happy. It can be painful. It can be exhausting. She sings about being too tired to explain it. And I don’t need her to.
Tonight’s sound reminds me of Half Way Home, but with strings that cradle her folk songwriting voice, sweeping in where she leaves off. Could this feeling of bitterness and growth be recurring? The title of the track situates it in the present, no matter when it was written, it is Tonight.
Summer starts with the lyrics “Took a while but I made it through.”
Whatever has happened since Spring, causes her to declare victory. Her journey has come to an end, but leads quickly to another beginning. Beginnings can come at any point in your story. The song breaks into a easy Fleetwood Mac type folk-rock arrangement. Olsen is the narrator and the character. Pointing at a universal “you”, one that we all have and love to know, and hate having known.
There is so much doubt in the subject matter, it’s created and dissolved. I don’t see this explored in music that often. Most of the time, songwriters present a record after they’ve straightened everything out, and they want to display how sad a time was, or how awesome they feel now.
Olsen is honest about where she is at every step of the way. And for a record with doubt creeping in and out of the lyrics, the sound is so certain and defined.
Endgame is raw. It’s the track where while I was listening, lost it. Though the strings are ornate, they feel less important. The focus is her voice, on the words she is sharing. Piano chords appear under her, but she is unaware. The chorus blooms, and pulsates, and resonant drums travel through her words. The 2nd chorus blooms more, her voice echoes. It is a simply beautiful song. And I feel so strongly when I hear it that I don’t even have much to say. The horns at the end add to the raw beauty. Hearing them quiver, like her voice breaks your heart.
The vocal performance on this song is astounding. The way she shifts into her upper register in “I’ve had enough” brings chills. The way that she takes time in her phrases, dials her voice back and out of line with the piano on “I know how it all comes back”.
And then hearing her voice erupt over arpeggios, is perfection.
This is the closer. This feels like an end, in all it’s open-endedness. It declares that nothing is certain. Naming something thats supposed to be so secure and finite, Chance, is laughable. Because chance defies telos. Shes telling us a story that isn’t actually over.
Feels like the moments where you’re driving your car alone, content. Fully aware of the aches that surround you. But you know you’re living and that is enough. You can reflect with gratitude.
This feels like the end of a musical, on a stage alone. Like Liza singing Life is a Cabaret. And Barbara singing My Man. The finale. Where the protagonist understands everything, and the audience is confused, left with their emotions about it all. It’s glamorous and emotionally charged. As Olsen walks through the mess she’s so beautifully made, she picks up each piece and tucks it into her basket. “Its hard to say forever love, forever’s just so far” She sings, refusing concepts of time. Honest. Open. Reluctant. Content.
And she ends with a question.
“Why don’t you say you’re with me now, With all of your heart?“
If there’s anything she’s learned in this album, it’s that the present is what matters. Is what should be seen. All the work engaging her past, she just wants to look in the mirror and see what is presently there.
The strings play an outro, and come to a thinning unison, playing into a horizon. A horizon from where they came in the beginning. As if played into a mirror, the phrases meet each other.
This record is very vivid, you can see every scene as if you’ve lived it, because you probably have. Olsen writes about human experience that everyone can locate in themselves when they look into a mirror. She can see herself clearly, critically, and wholly. She doesn’t try to masquerade or paint herself any way. And in doing that: she is our mirror, at eye level, heart level, sticking up for our dreams, and helping us draw the map for our journey.
This record is full of the thoughts that keep my mind awake when I want to fall asleep. Questioning if I’ve done right for myself. If a love is meant to be left behind. Wondering what goodbye really means, and if there ever really is an end to anything.
All Mirrors reminds me that where I’ve arrived is certainly because of where I’ve been and is not necessarily in spite of those past places. Where I am now, in all of its wavering confidence, and frantic emotion deserves a celebration, with embellished string arrangements, with loud exclamations, with deeply introspective inquisitions.
Shay Leigh, Class Professor
As I write this, I fear the other reviews. I cannot read them yet. The headlines I’ve seen include everything from “powerful” to “fatiguing” and while, as an Angel Olsen fangirl, I may be blind to criticisms of Olsen’s newest music, I’m attempting to formulate my own opinion of this album before making sense of any noise outside of the record. The early conclusion I’ve come to is this: All Mirrors is an intuitive progression, something few artists find.
Plenty of musicians shed their skin, make something new, and face a plethora of criticisms about how hard they must have tried to expose that new layer. I agree, sometimes these new sounds do feel forced — call me crazy for saying this of one of my favorite college radio sweethearts, but this is how Masseduction by St. Vincent came off to me — but in general, I want to walk through the world with an appreciation for the ways in which we can all shapeshift and learn from our past and find comfort in a new set of circumstances. This is what I appreciate about All Mirrors.
It wasn’t the logical next step. Olsen could’ve put out another MY WOMAN and none of us would’ve batted an eye. Mac DeMarco’s been doing this since 2014’s Salad Days. And everyone is okay with this, because when artists’ stay in their lane, we don’t have to make sense of anything different. But All Mirrors isn’t about making sense of something Angel Olsen did differently, it’s simply a new chapter in the metamorphosis of sound in which she is in control. David Bowie only became Ziggy Stardust out of a rejection and exploration of the box in which listeners and music critics were trying to place him. Olsen simultaneously emulates both a soprano counterpart to Nico á la The Velvet Underground & Nico and a confident if not strident Lou Reed, often within the same song. Layer this with an intricate string section, scored for the album as if it were itself a film, and voila, All Mirrors.
And honestly? It’s not an album I want to listen to back-to-back, nor is it something I find an easy and capturing listen. It’s a record that demands attention because each song catapults the listener through a new door in that funhouse. There’s so much to explore in each track, that I am listening to it back-to-back.
If you’re here for the long short (which, if you’ve made it this far, you’re not, but here we go anyway), try these tracks first: “Spring”’; “What It Is”; “Tonight”; “Summer”. Prepare to fall into a beautiful “Blue Velvet”-esque nightmare. And while you’re visiting, please don’t wake me.
All Mirrors by Angel Olsen is out now.