Angel Olsen All Mirrors

[Jagjaguwar; 2019]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: longing songs, sad songs, love songs, lost anthems
Others: Lower Dens, Amen Dunes, Julia Holter, Meg Baird, Chelsea Wolfe, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Merchandise, Neko Case, Roy Orbison, Lana Del Rey, Big Thief

As much as 2016’s My Woman successfully broke out from a folk formula that Angel Olsen had so perfected, it seemed to almost shed something essential about the singer-songwriter. The sorrowful rigors of her previous work hadn’t gone away, but an adherence to a jangly 90s indie rock aesthetic somehow dulled them. While single “Shut Up and Kiss Me” is unimpeachably great, a lot of the rote alt-rock accoutrement of the surrounding material had a somewhat flattening effect on those otherwise piercing pleas. But one could see Angel Olsen really going for it career-wise, and talents like hers really do beg for a greater resonance. This ambition may not have panned out to every early fan’s taste, but (especially if you’ve seen her belt ‘em out live) the steely conviction remained a strong hook, even while you’re trying to figure out which Pixies song you’re being reminded of.

All Mirrors is still a very different record, but with its brash, tactile production flourishes and chilling Scott Walker strings, it feels more like home than the last one. While it’d be great on some level to have Olsen ascend to proper pop star status, the new album shows what we could lose if that happened. There are few releases that can so compellingly bum you out, even if that’s not necessarily this songwriter’s prime directive. The songs here retain some of the same flinty dramatic tension that made Burn Your Fire…’s “White Fire” such a sharp flash in the dark. However lush her voice and string section are, Olsen still sounds like someone talking to you closely, with tenderness, passion, and more than a little exasperation.

For anyone who’d been waiting for the full-on Leslie Gore treatment from Olsen, “Chance” could be your Huckleberry. All Mirrors may start with a chest-heaving burst of anguish, but it closes with a traditional crooner-style ballad fit for a sweeping cinematic montage. However different, both tracks build beautifully, the instrumentation deftly emphasizing and matching those devastating vocal sustains. “New Love Cassette” is a subtle marvel of a groove-based seduction track. The synth/drum progression at its core doesn’t herald much, but when that vocal keys in, it comes wondrously alive. Then there are the strings (a constant on the album, but almost never used the same way twice) that jab and swell with authority. The fragile “Tonight” recalls the sort of warm/tender epitome that her old collaborator Will Oldham has achieved. It may not be the album’s best song, but it will likely be a new fan favorite.

There isn’t a wrong move that this reviewer can hear. Even the shorter tracks reward patient listening. One winds up confidently inhabiting Olsen’s hemisphere, even if they might’ve initially scrunched up their fickle face. “Impasse” is almost like a starker version of the climactic opener, but it was a smart move to reiterate that direness before the gentle “Tonight.” And smart moves abound here. It will work some uplift out of you and, if you’re not made of stone, copious tears.

All Mirrors isn’t just a rousing, blast-worthy record, but a distillation of craft in the face of the reliable instability of human existence. Performing and recording is like stealing away poise, eloquence, and grace for oneself. It isn’t yours to keep, but you can have it more than one may possess a given moment’s unheralded salience. Its value is either baseline or intangible, but idling in your ready midst. That hurt, that awkwardness, that boredom. These are less substantive obstacles in and of themselves than key parts of the turn to whatever essential momentum one might grasp. This album feels like a particularly earnest lunge from a series of these sorts of turns, the swelling strings sometimes tugging like long, clingy tendrils collected in the fleeing. The natural feel of Olsen’s voice with these arrangements can’t be overemphasized. There is a true communion with the brimmed-over melodies and rhythms, but a desperation that seems to know solemn silence isn’t what’s left over. Often, the listen feels like an impossible reprieve in a crumbling structure, with a rich echo helping to sell you on your own resolve. Not unlike love itself, it is a riveting, wrenching, and absurdly rewarding experience.

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