Bold, passionate risks, rewarded
“Intern,” from 2016’s My Woman, hinted at a departure from previous work, contrasting with the album’s other tracks. Characterized by retro-sounding guitars and modest production, the collection was a critical success. Whether or not Angel Olsen intended it to be a harbinger of her future, “Intern” is the closest ancestor of All Mirrors. Barring her songwriting gifts, artistic courage and beautifully-expressive voice, Olsen eschews most of her previous work to assemble her boldest effort to date.
Instrumentation, structure and mood all undergo their own metamorphoses at the hands of Olsen and co-composer Ben Babbitt. When included, guitars play only a supporting role, allowing lush string arrangements to dominate and signal musical changes. Individual numbers deviate from Olsen’s past habits, expanding sonically while focusing more on music and less on the verse. “Lark” opens up into a sonic space that feels larger than Olsen’s previous environments. Cleaner vocals and throbbing low-end drum cadences stretch the aural spectrum, providing breathing room for the various strings. Verses composed of lyrically dense couplets combine with emotive choruses, but the only resolution comes from an explosive instrumental finish.
“All Mirrors” is closer to a self-contained piece. As the title implies, Olsen sings of introspection, looking at herself and her past over a blend of synthesizers and strings. “Too Easy” and “New Love Cassette” push farther into this modern sound with assistance from vocal colorings that fit with the polished production of the tracks. The warbly-reverberated treatment that was applied to Olsen’s voice in the past is absent here. Instead of one voice filling a smaller sonic spectrum, some of these songs have various, but distinct, vocal parts. “Spring” decorates Olsen’s voice with a phased gloss that also touches the piano and loose drumming to create a gently-psychedelic love song.
Uptempo and pulsing, “What It Is” delivers a bit of wisdom alongside multi-instrumental blasts that delineate the sections. “Knowing that you love someone, doesn’t mean you ever were in love.” Inadvertently, the sheer amount of sound contained within All Mirrors pulls attention away from lyrics like these, even though their honesty and quality are integral to the song. To counter this, Olsen strips away all but what is essential for “Tonight.” Only light strings, soft bass, brushed drums and a raw, pained voice, deliver this sad, but hopeful tune; it’s the album’s best. The vocals are so transparent that with a decent set of headphones, the slightest inflections and flutters of Olsen’s voice can be heard.
“Summer” once again changes the pace, delivering a lighter mood and another previously unexplored musical structure. The sustained piano on “Endgame” drives a progression with a resolution as uneasy as the vocal tone and subject matter, although there is some reprieve in the concluding horn and bass passage.
All Mirrors covers a lot of ground, much of it new to Olsen and all of it excellent. There are no weak songs. Retracing the steps and sounds of My Woman, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, or an amalgamation of the two would have been a far safer path to a great album. Fortunately, Olsen has the chops and the chutzpah to aim a little higher and deliver an even better result.