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In the spring of 2018, Angel Olsen decided to pare back. She had recently toured in support of her critically acclaimed 2016 LP My Woman, a full-on rock record that transitioned the singer-songwriter from the stark folk of her 2014 breakthrough, Burn Your Fire For No Witness. Now Olsen’s profile was higher than ever, and yet she felt trapped. She longed for the simplicity of her earlier work.
Olsen proceeded to book three solo tours, focusing on material from pre-fame releases like 2010’s Strange Cacti and 2012’s Half Way Home. When it was time to start work her on her fourth proper album, All Mirrors, “I was like, ‘Man, I just wanna go back to the way it was,” she recently told The Fader. Her latest batch of songs were inspired by personal turmoil. (In a statement accompanying her new record, she says, “It is about losing empathy, trust, love for destructive people.”) She decamped to a studio in northwestern Washington, and made a one-woman version of the album, “my Nebraska,” as put it to the New York Times, alluding to the classic Bruce Springsteen record.
But that version of All Mirrors is not the record that Angel Olsen has put into the world first. Olsen promises that the stripped-down incarnation will come out early next year, but for now she’s focusing on the very opposite of a solo All Mirrors. This version is lush and cinematic, outfitted with ’80s-sounding synths and Hitchcockian string sections. While it feels like a natural continuation of the robust My Woman, it does signify the considerable distance that Olsen has traveled from her time on the Chicago DIY circuit in the early ’10s. While these songs might have been borne out of an impulse to go small, Olsen wound up going bigger than she ever has been.
How big are we talking? In the video for “Lark,” the album’s overpowering opening track, Olsen strides up a hill as a small orchestra of brass and string instruments are goosed toward a towering crescendo by insistent, “Take My Breath Away”-style synth throbs. Suddenly, we see Olsen at the top of the hill as a camera hovers over her, like a bird or some mythical winged serpent. She sings the enormous chorus while slowly raising her arms, as a guru would while addressing the entire world’s population. This sends the camera zooming away as “Lark” appears to consume an impossibly wide vista of space and land.
It is, as you can tell because the “Lark” video is decidedly unsubtle, incredibly dramatic and bombastic. I’ve watched it several times, and I love it, though it also skirts self-parody. (I’m trying to imagine how the internet would react if the dude from Greta Van Fleet lip-synced one of his songs from the top of a mountain.) This is clearly not the move of a person who simply wants to play folk tunes for the rest of her life. No matter her understandable misgivings with the rigors of indie fame, Angel Olsen is a star, and this widescreen, go-for-broke version of All Mirrors shows her fully owning that.
In the many profiles that have been written about Olsen lately, she usually comes off as funny, wary, sort of mystical, and a little remote. This is a marked contrast from her songs, which are often direct, confessional, and bracingly emotional. Though with All Mirrors, Olsen has made a crucial decision to shift focus away from her lyrics, which commanded much of the attention on Burn Your Fire and even My Woman, and make a record centered on mood and sound.