It’s hard to imagine the last decade without Angel Olsen, a songwriter whose many iterations have challenged and bucked the long-held stereotypes about women in the music industry, particularly those writing emotional, narrative music. Her fourth and most fascinating full-length album, this year’s All Mirrors, is the culmination of a decade spent sharpening her sound, and the record is a fitting climax for a talent whose shape-shifting has become her defining characteristic. From the earthy crackle of her early recordings — 2010’s lost EP Strange Cacti, 2012’s delirious debut Halfway Home — to a slow, simmering bend toward something dreamier and more psychedelic, Olsen has refused to sit in one genre or one moment.
If her majestic indie rock breakout, 2014’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness took steps away from that initial lo-fi folk, then 2016’s My Woman gunned the engine, embracing explicitly feminist themes along with upbeat production and tongue-in-cheek, self-directed videos that even veered into pop with their playfulness and obvious camp. A collection of B-sides followed in 2017, and though Phases might’ve been assembled from Olsen’s castoffs, it was still heads and shoulders better than plenty of other primary material released that year. Both of these releases came during the middle of a new era for Olsen, who decamped from a longtime perch in Chicago to the artsy enclave of Asheville, North Carolina, where she seems to have found an even greater sense of creative community.
Speaking of collaboration, her work on All Mirrors was preceded by a warning shot, the careening disco gallop of “True Blue,” a song with super producer Mark Ronson for his stunning collection of pop swooners, Late Night Feelings. (I maintain that song is the best one of the year). Olsen’s own All Mirrors continues on in the same delirious, synth-wave vein, bleary with disappointment but full of clear-eyed indictments that pull no punches. An Olsen song often functions like a crystal ball, as listeners bring their own reflections and project them into the mystic, gloomy depths, conjuring their own ghosts to dance with. There is space for that on All Mirrors, fueled by an ambiguity that Olsen, and artists like her, have always encouraged, welcoming multiple interpretations of the story she created instead of insisting on a master narrative.
But there is also a deep sense of ownership over her own personal connection to these songs, and a confidence in her experience of them that was on full display during a recent LA show as part of her tour behind the album. Purposefully selecting smaller, seated venues like downtown’s historic stage at The Palace, Olsen couldn’t help but needle the audience about watching the show from “velvet seats” and a few comments about well-connected industry folks scoring tickets from their plug. While this kind of heckling sometimes felt disconnected from the emotional depths and raw, restrained power of the songs themselves, it was also fitting that Olsen would pull no punches in making her audience slightly uncomfortable, confronting the dark minutiae of our journey to these particular seats, on that particular night.
All Mirrors is just as concerned with the overarching magnificence of disappointment as it is the dark minutiae of daily life, and Olsen’s decision to enlist an orchestra to help conduct her exploration of these twin perils is an ideal companion to the record’s other sonic mood — feminine psychedelic noodling. Of course, all the strings in the world still can’t surpass the immediate charisma of Olsen’s voice, a scratchy, brilliant alto that’s equally mesmerizing as a falsetto whisper or a dramatic, belted yelp. Accompanied on this album by her long-time producer John Congleton, and soundtrack artist Ben Babbitt, sometimes All Mirrors is so cinematic it does have the feel of a soundtrack. That’s another testament to the power of Olsen’s lyrics, which are vivid enough to paint characters and situations into view, even without any visible plot. The show’s single guest star, Ronson, accompanying for the encore of “True Blue” was a fitting, left-turn conclusion to the show.
As the decade that catapulted her into the upper echelons of indie fame comes to a close, it’s hard to imagine that, after listening to All Mirrors, anyone would dare pigeonhole Olsen as something as trivial as a “female songwriter,” or, as a horribly botched radio interview once tried to peg her “a girl at the bottom of a dark well.” As one of the most influential artists of the 2010s, on her latest work Olsen sparkles and reflects, even in the midst of what might be personal misery, holding a mirror to the exhausting industry that she’s continuously risen above.