Anyone reckless enough to have typecast Angel Olsen according to 2013’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness is in for a sizeable surprise with her third album, MY WOMAN. Despite the lyrics, Olsen’s delivery suggests a profound sense of courage, not loss. Throughout the album, the admission that life is difficult is celebrated. There are concessions to sadness, but not hopelessness.
All Mirrors is the Missouri-born musician’s grandest album yet. But for Olsen, letting multiple musicians into her private sonic world wasn’t always easy.
Her family was old-fashioned and religious, her mother loving and her father reserved; they were poor, but Olsen had piano and guitar lessons, and on birthdays her mother would take her to the St. Louis Symphony to hear classical music. In high school, she began to have intermittent pneumonia and severe weight fluctuations — she went from being at the base of the cheerleading squad’s pyramid formation to being the one they wanted to throw in the air — before finding out she had a thyroid disorder. Around the same time, her mother became sick, her grandmother became sick and a close friend began showing symptoms of schizophrenia. I watched them going from being really there to not being hardly there at all,” she says. And still having a body, walking around, doing things.” It’s been a theme in her life, she says, watching people stay alive but suffer through it.
Both musically and emotionally, the album is beautiful and intense: Nearly every song begins quietly and builds to a powerful crescendo powered by the string arrangements and her soaring voice. It seems likely to land at the top of many critics’ polls at the end of the year.
Angel’s shows aren’t a once in a lifetime event packed with over the top action or hyperbole but if you let yourself open up to receive the songs you will find yourself touched by one of the most gently rewarding performances of the year.
Angel Olsen moved to Chigaco after graduating and became ensconced in the underground indie scene there in the mid-to-late noughties. Her musical career began as a backing singer for Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy in the early part of this decade. She eventually signed to Jagjaguwar, and moved to the small town of Asheville in North Carolina in 2014 just as she was becoming well-known and lauded as a solo singer. Her last two albums were recorded in Los Angeles.
Ultimately this record – her best yet – is about finding a different kind of love: the quiet self-examination after the dust of a break-up finally settles. Heartbreak comes and goes, and other people will always let you down. By looking in the mirror and gazing hard, with ‘All Mirrors’ Angel Olsen seems to conclude that by loving yourself, you’ll make it through the pain in one piece.
It’s odd now to think that ‘All Mirrors’ was almost a double-album; one half the raw, solo interpretations and the other full band versions of each song. The cinematic quality that the 14-piece orchestra brings to these songs is like seeing whole vistas open out in front of you. It’s most apparent on ‘Summer’, a sweeping Western in which Angel discovers the light at the end of the tunnel. Took a while but I made it through” she sings.
My birthday is January 22, and when I was a kid, my parents would take me to the symphony to see The Nutcracker. I liked listening and singing and writing when I was really small, and I would go home and make these tapes, recording in different places around the house to get different sonics and training my voice to sing a certain way. I must have been 9 or 10. When we made this record, we booked a session at United A Studio A at the famed United Recording in L.A. with the string players, and the second day was my birthday. It would have been a day I went to the symphony.
Angel Olsen’s fourth studio album is her most adventurous to date and almost certainly her best. The Missouri-born alt-country singer has turned down the guitars on All Mirrors, with strings and synths utilised dreamily to create a symphonic soundscape that perfectly compliments her otherworldly holler. Where her earlier albums were more earthy, All Mirrors is an aesthetic creation that works in juxtaposition with her emotional lyrics, mostly drawn from experience.
More than ever, Olsen wants to live rather than explain. “And it’s not because I don’t love,” she sings somewhere between relief and fear on “Tonight,” “just don’t have time to explain all the things you think you’ve come to understand about me.” It’s not an epiphany, but rather a hard-fought resignation.
Now with third album, ‘All Mirrors’, Angel goes full IMAX, revealing everything she possibly can, filling your senses with her ideas. A sprawling go-anywhere-do-anything blockbuster that, while perhaps not as supremely constructed as ‘My Woman’ was, reinforces her artistic nous. Showcasing her ability to take disparate thoughts and turn them into something astonishing.
But Olsen sees herself as a writer as much as a performer. The band, the makeup, the dresses — all are just the medium for a message honed over insular hours at her Asheville, N.C., home. Beneath the profusion of sound on her new album, she says, my songwriting is still there,” in all its familiar architecture — even if it has been transformed.
All Mirrors, Olsen’s fourth album (or fifth, if we include 2017’s Phases, a collection of B-sides), arrives just a few months after her biggest moment to date: ‘True Blue’, a roller-disco track on Mark Ronson’s most recent album, Late Night Feelings.
Her unique blend of throwback country influence with a more contemporary indie style provides the framework for her honest compositions which her and her band deliver with a surprisingly refreshing tinge of nostalgia. There is nothing between Angel and her songs. No gimmicky showmanship or showy instrumentals to drown out the message of the music and its because of this that the spellbinding romance of the songs is allowed to bleed out and move the audience.
He’s now working with John on something else so this project has definitely opened doors for him, and he can be a Swiss Army Knife player for many people. I’m really proud of him. He’s from a classical, avant-garde background and he’s also been doing video game soundtracks which is a totally different kind of composing. I asked him to do a demo for a section of ‘Tonight’ and he performed all the strings! I was crying and I said, ‘Did you perform all of it?’ Most people will write it in MIDI so you have to kind of imagine it a little bit. Every single string has a life of its own, but in MIDI it’s lifeless. It blew me away and I was like, ‘Thanks for doing that but please don’t approach every song like that because we’ll run out of time’ Laughs.
Each of the album’s eleven tracks is a study in contradiction: genuine but performative, intimate but far-reaching, repetitive but never dull. In a statement on her Instagram , Olsen acknowledged the disjointed feelings and verses” of Lark,” which opens the album with a blur of dissonant strings. Olsen’s voice hovers in the same low register before suddenly leaping an octave and taking on a much more robust, resonant quality. Later on, a series of piercing violin trills interrupts Olsen mid-sentence as a verse tapers off. Although the song’s radical changes in tone likely represent the complexity of human nature, a theme Olsen explores in its lyrics, they produce the effect of disparate excerpts that never form an entirely cohesive whole. The track fades out on a two-note synth motif strangely reminiscent of birdsong, giving listeners yet another idea to contemplate before leaving them in silence.
The Bad: The bad in Olsen’s All Mirrors is negligible. On an album sold as heavy with the levity of self-reflection and acceptance, we know what we’re getting into. Yet at times it feels like there is so much Angel and so little room for the listener. Confined to her mirrored room, we sit crouched with no exit, unable to cut through the noise of a deafening orchestra to catch our breaths and gather our own thoughts. Whether that’s a bad thing, well, that’s up to you.
Wow, time has revealed how little we know us,” she observes on ‘Spring’, delivering that exclamation so flatly it passes by almost immediately. I’ve been too busy, I should’ve noticed.” Slinking and grinding with a Parisian synth-strut, the title track is jarring and playful even as its heart is snapped into sharp bits. ‘What It Is’ reels off the various ways in which the rush of falling in love turns life into a breeze: You just wanted to forget that your heart was full of shit,” Olsen sings, seeming to address herself.
The original plan was to embrace solitude, literally speaking, and record All Mirrors as a sparse solo record. In fact, she did record the solo album — resisting overdubs, an attempt to keep it as raw as her earliest recordings — and toyed with the idea of releasing two albums at once: solo and full-band renderings of the same songs. That idea was shelved when she began working with string arrangers, such as Jherek Bischoff and Ben Babbitt, and was struck by the powerful and sweeping dimension they brought to the material. It became clear she needed to release this record on its own. A self-described “control freak,” Olsen admits it was terrifying to relinquish control and trust her collaborators to take over these songs. “In ‘All Mirrors,’ I created the melody of that middle section of the song. I did it on piano and sent it to them and they turned it into this crazy masterpiece,” she marvels.
That same outpouring of love for My Woman also had Olsen on the road for the better part of the year, touring around the world. It began with a performance of “Shut Up Kiss Me” on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, before barreling into a summer full of sold-out shows across both the US and Europe. She also performed on Conan ahead of a sold-out set at Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles, the biggest sold-out stop until Olsen went on to sell out the Roundhouse Theatre in London. Other standout sets included a taping for the legendary Austin City Limits PBS program, and performing at Glastonbury, Pitchfork Music Festival, ACL, and other major festivals.
Burn Your Fire for No Witness, which she released on indie-label Jagjaguwar in 2014, was Olsen’s breakout record. It opens with the moody Unfucktheworld,” where her unruly vibrato sketches the project’s overarching theme: I am the only one now.” Co-produced by John Congleton and bolstered by a full band, this rowdy, wild ode to defiant self-sufficiency earned Olsen the esteemed Best New Music designation from Pitchfork and her first TV performance on Letterman. It raised her to mystic cult status — a singer that could turn loneliness into something to be desired. In 2016, she released MY WOMAN, which suggested a stylistic evolution with its poppy love-hurt songs and enveloping synths. To those watching, it seemed like she was at the peak of her career.
All Mirrors isn’t an indie rock album. It’s too rich and lush and open. Its scope is too big. It demands to be heard in concert halls with ornate domes and tapestries and shit. None of the possible reference points are quite right, but All Mirrors will send you scrambling for classics to come up with any kind of sonic precedent: Early-’70s Scott Walker, Berlin-era Bowie, scores for mid-period Kubrick movies. It’s a thick, heady, transporting piece of music.
Although All Mirrors” will never lend itself to easy interpretation, Olsen’s creative vision is so singular and powerful that every track merits a second listen. Behind each orchestral flourish and theatrical image, her understanding of music’s revelatory potential shines through like a well-polished mirror.
Ben Babbit, a composer mostly known for the 2018 indie film Paris Window and the video game Kentucky Route Zero, is a huge part of All Mirrors; on all but three of the songs, he’s credited as a co-writer. Babbitt also plays a bunch of instruments — guitar, bass, synth, various mutations of those instruments — on every song. And the way sounds pile on top of each other helps set All Mirrors apart from every Angel Olsen album that’s come before.
As the camera was readied, Olsen took her place in a white dress with exaggerated curves, translucent like a jellyfish, through which her actual silhouette could be seen clearly. For a few moments people darted in and out of the camera’s path, checking lights and adjusting mirrors. Then the swirling synth lines of the song filled the room, and Olsen surfaced into the shot, inventing a little movement on the fly to amplify the drama — a flexing of the shoulder blades that resembled a bird stretching its wings or a boxer readying himself for a fight. As she stepped into the path of the mirrors, she stood in front of each reflection for a moment, holding her own gaze, keenly aware of her performance.
If Angel Olsen were ever to do a James Bond theme, ‘Impasse’ would be her audition song. The smoky build-up gives way to swooning Barry-esque strings that swirl around her as she screams I’m just living in my head”. It’s a darkness that is slowly pierced through by ‘Tonight’ which, towards its climax, lets the orchestra take centre stage.
Because her new songs demanded a plurality of voices, Olsen sings in a much broader range of styles on the album, and she brought in guest guitarist Seth Kauffman to augment her regular band of bass player Emily Elhaj, drummer Joshua Jaeger and guitarist Stewart Bronaugh. As for a producer, Olsen took to Justin Raisen, who’s known for his work with Charli XCX, Sky Ferreira and Santigold, as well as opting to record live to tape at LA’s historic Vox Studios.
In the wings, a stripped-down demo version of the same album awaits release. For now, it’s all feathers, catgut and gale-force nine winds, with Olsen singing of heartbreak , image-projection and even selfhood itself. Whose version of you is correct, she asks, in various ways. String sections are often the last refuge of the indie rock scoundrel seeking heft for thin songs. But here, on tunes like New Love Cassette or What It Is, the scything strings undercut the melodies with a purpose.
Infinite Worlds builds upon Tamko’s stripped-down demos that have been circulating online and throughout the independent music community for the past two years. Her Persian Garden cassette, released in 2014 via Miscreant Records, was a lo-fi collection where she embraced a first-thought best-thought approach, making songs that began with just her voice and guitar. But here, Tamko is a main performer of synths, keyboard, guitars, and drums, at times enlisting the work of session studio musicians. This had Tamko channeling the thoughtfulness of her lyricism into her arrangement and production as well. The result is a wide-ranging eight-song collection that’s pleasantly unclassifiable: hypnotic electronic collages, acoustic ballads, and bursts of bright punk sit sideby- side cohesively, all tied together by Tamko’s soaring voice.
The descent into darkness is a trope we find time again across history, literature and film. But there’s also an abyss above. There’s a winding white staircase that goes ever upward into the great unknown — each step, each turn, requiring a greater boldness and confidence than the one before. This is the journey on which we find Angel Olsen.
Reverb and its vocal cousin, vibrato, are aural forms of witchcraft, imparting both haunt and gravitas to the songs they touch. Angel Olsen , once of Chicago, now of North Carolina, has long had a grain silo of a voice, pre-loaded with its own digital effects. On her fourth album she ramps up the drama, adding yet more reverb and throwing in lush orchestral arrangements.
If you’ve seen Olsen live, you’ll know she — like Perfume Genius, Sharon Van Etten or other baroque-pop leaning contemporaries — is quite funny on-stage, far from the mysterious, foreboding presence on her music. We talk about how profiles often make her into this mythical figure (or sad girl, as we spoke about last album cycle ): as with Lana Del Rey circa 2011, there seems to be this need to pin her down in order to understand the music. But Olsen isn’t that interested in performance.