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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.
The album’s centerpiece, a woozy awake-at-3 a.m. ballad called “Tonight,” is, on paper, about the apparent acceptance of living alone after a breakup. “I like the air that I breathe / I like the thoughts that I think / I like the life that I lead / without you without you without you without you.” But what Olsen says isn’t nearly compelling as how she says it, in a halting stage whisper that sounds strained. as if from crying and yelling for several hours. Her voice is set, once again, to a churning, disorienting mix of strings and brass arranged by Olsen’s songwriting collaborator Ben Babbitt and conducted by Los Angeles-based musician and composer Jherek Bischoff. Together, Olsen and the pocket symphony build exquisitely, conveying, and then deepening, the heartache of the lyrics.
While Olsen’s words have been quoted and memed by her fans, the draw of All Mirrors ultimately has more to do with her vocals — whether she’s howling like a scorned Stevie Nicks or adopting a more laidback, torch-singer posture — and how they play off the evocative, slow-burn sonic landscapes. At times, the vibey-ness of All Mirrors is reminiscent of the nocturnal mood music of Beach House’s oeuvre, especially when Olsen leans into the sultry, mid-tempo synth-pop of songs like “Too Easy,” “New Love Cassette,” and “What It Is,” an almost-rocker with a swaggering beat pitched somewhere between early ’70s glitter rock and the Eagles’ “Heartache Tonight.”
In other places All Mirrors has the glacial, intensely melancholy feel of Beck’s Sea Change, particularly when Olsen emotes against those dramatic string sections. Long-time fans might miss some of the intimacy and dynamics of her previous work; it will be fascinating to hear how these songs hold up once all of these sweepingly grandiose accouterments are stripped away.
But for now, this All Mirrors is a mesmerizing mood record of the first order. While Olsen was already known for writing tear-jerkers, this album gives her music an operatic power that makes romantic hardships feel positively apocalyptic.
All Mirrors is out now via Jagjaguwar. Get it here.