The descent into darkness is a trope we find time again across history, literature and film — a protagonist plunging further and further into the depths. This endlessly fascinating artist’s seventh, full-length, album The Practice of Love is just as considered as 2016’s Blood Bitch, examining one’s role in humankind and on Earth, and probing that favourite of pop-song themes: love. But where the 2017 Nordic Music Prize-winning Blood Bitch was packed with visceral imagery and disarming sonics, the themes of The Practice of Love are encased in a warm cocoon of poetry, blissed-out circling synths and trance-like Nineties beats. (Elisa Bray) There’s an interior dialogue throughout, which is sometimes more intriguing than musically engrossing. Take the title track, whose spoken-word monologue morphs into a recorded conversation in which a woman discusses how childlessness in her late thirties affects her place in society, over the sparsest electronica.
Back at the coffee shop the next morning, Olsen is distracted and stressed out. She had to do a last-minute phone interview with an Italian journalist before our meeting, and it’s looking like our planned trip to the Art Institute of Chicago isn’t going to pan out. Instead, we’re going shopping for clothes for a video shoot the day after tomorrow, though she isn’t allowed to tell me anything about it. I feel bad; her trip to Chicago was originally supposed to be a personal one to see old friends. Now it has been ambushed by phone interviews, this music video, and me.
In 2013 Olsen added bassist Stewart Bronaugh and drummer Josh Jaeger to pad out her live stripped back sound whilst bringing a rocky element as she toured nationwide. Later that year Olsen signed to the label Jagjaguwar home to the likes of Bon Iver, Love Life and Dinosaur Jr. The following year she released her second album Burn Your Fire for No Witness” offering a deeper expression of emotions and creating that heartfelt connection which she does so well. Having the addition of Jaeger and Bronaugh both on the record and in a live capacity provided a heavy almost grunge element reflected in tracks such as Stars” and Hi-Five” whilst maintaining the enchantingly dreamy nature about Angel Olsen.
All Mirrors,” the album Olsen is releasing this October, will certainly feel like a departure from many of the boxes she has been put in. The introspective songwriting is still there, but this record pairs it with expansive synth and string arrangements — a lush, lavish, overfilled water bed of sound that recalls avant-garde film scores and the eerily lovelorn sound of the singer Scott Walker. Where her earlier records could be strikingly naturalistic, this one is darkly ornate and dreamlike. And if her earlier songs felt like brief, beautiful postcards mailed from achingly precise emotional locations, the ones on this new record have the spacious, ruminative quality of someone gazing out at something vast.
Olsen’s flight is both upward and inward. Olsen’s artistic beginnings as a collaborator shifted seamlessly to her magnificent, cryptic-to-cosmic solo work, and then she formed bands to play her songs, and her stages and audiences grew exponentially. But all along, Olsen was more concerned with a different kind of path, and on her vulnerable, Big Mood new album, All Mirrors, we can see her taking an introspective deep dive towards internal destinations and revelations. In the process of making this album, she found a new sound and voice, a blast of fury mixed with hard won self-acceptance.
Now, folk rock’s most unfettered leviathan returns with her fourth full-length, All Mirrors. A beguiling spell book of evolutionary incantations both in sound and in self, her latest LP sees the songstress leap out of the jukebox, taking a sledgehammer to the lighthearted lunacy of love so deeply embedded in My Woman’s DNA. What’s left in that furious wake are ragged, reflective bits of glass pieced together with the dense glue of mantra-like incantations and doom-laden orchestrations. Co-produced by John Congleton with arrangements from Jherek Bischoff and Ben Babbitt, each of All Mirrors’ 11 tracks present instrumentation as harrowing and huge as the corporeal and dramatic words that accompany them.
Much of the magic of ‘All Mirrors’ is down to the malleability of Angel’s voice. It can, one minute, sound like that of a ‘60s rock’n’roll icon, the next of someone wrenching their heart out. A whisper becomes a yell with such startling ease that it makes every line strike harder.
All Mirrors” is not only the lead single, but the title track of Angel Olsen’s upcoming fourth album. I chose this one as the title because I liked the theme: the theme of how we are all mirrors to and for each other”, she said.
All Mirrors is released on Jagjaguwar on October 4th. Opening and closing with two six-minute theatrical epics, Angel Olsen’s fourth album ‘All Mirrors’ is cocooned in pensivity and self-reflection.
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.
There’s no resignation or frustration in Olsen’s voice: talking to me over the phone from her home in North Carolina, she’s warm but matter-of-fact about it. Even among her fans — and journalists, judging by some of the writing about Olsen — there’s a lot of different ideas around her music, coming to a head with 2016’s My Woman, an album quickly contextualised within the year’s hot feminist topics.
The staircase was the challenge. “Angel knew that she wanted a staircase,” Connor says; the director knew she couldn’t fake one. “You were losing sleep at night, like, ‘I need to find a staircase for this fucking video!'” Olsen laughs. Ultimately, they found some fans who worked in construction and were willing to build the staircase for cost: problem solved. “Ashley sent me a video of them building the staircase in the studio, listening to my record. She was like, ‘Things are going really well today. Your fans are insane!'” Olsen recalls.
Olsen has never shied away from meticulous musical tactics, especially in the studio. On her sparser records, that careful attention to detail pays dividends, as every single element—a turn of phrase, a spare arrangement, a well-placed crescendo—lands with devastating emotional precision. But applying a similarly fastidious approach to a dense collection such as All Mirrors has the opposite effect: The music is gorgeous but feels labored over, like pottery lacquered with one too many layers of shellac. Hopefully Olsen will also still release her stripped-back take on All Mirrors, as it’s the dressing—not the songs themselves—that stumbles.
The clip is brief but memorable. There are some puzzling retro flourishes. Olsen lip-syncs the My Woman track while wearing an earpiece headset and gazing straight into the camera. She checks herself out in a dressing-room mirror. The sleek artifice of the video seems deliberately at odds with the song’s central plea: “I just want to be alive, make something real.” A writer for Flavorwire, Moze Halperin, interpreted the video as a play on the self-consciously “confessional” singer-songwriter videos of the ’90s.
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.
With each record, it’s becoming clear that Angel Olsen ‘s evolution is akin to an auteur director. Each record is distinctly hers, even if it sounds slightly alien. It’s an idea she playfully toyed with in the video for ‘Intern’, where she donned a tinsel wig. The next stage. Angel, but not as we know her. She immediately shakes off any attempt to pigeon hole her the second the thought comes to someone’s mind, widening her scope and testing her limits.
Four albums in, and it sounds like Angel Olsen is starting to understand herself a little better. This whole album, she agrees, has been a huge learning curve.
For a minute and a half, Angel Olsen’s new album is a quiet murmur, a low boil. It doesn’t last. For about 95 seconds, Lark ,” the first song on the new All Mirrors, is going great. Olsen’s guitar is a sparkling tremolo. Letting her voice flicker and fade, Olsen sings about the hole left behind when someone leaves your life: If only we could start again, pretending we don’t know each other.” Behind her, we hear a rising drone of synths and strings. And then, suddenly, everything explodes. Lark” becomes something else.
That seems to be as close as All Mirrors gets to a USP: it’s an album that keeps taking ostensibly recognisable musical forms and twisting them out of shape into something challenging and intriguing. The title track deals in a certain kind of alt-rock’s current favourite mode – 80s-influenced synths drifting dreamily along – and shifts its mood completely. Olsen starts out singing in the standard blank-eyed style that goes with dreamy 80s synths, but gradually ratchets up the intensity until it feels discomfiting. Then another off-kilter string arrangement crashes in: the effect isn’t lush so much as oppressive, deliberately crowded with sound.
Orchestras are indie rock’s new Marshall stacks. That’s fitting on a lot of levels — as a satisfying class-action appropriation of elitist cultural tropes, as a deconstruction of those same tropes, and as an elevation of collectivism over American myths of individualism and exceptionalism that’ve lately been twisted into such ugly shapes. Also: done right, orchestrations just sound dope. There’s plenty of ‘em done right on Angel Olsen ‘s latest, All Mirrors, her best record yet in an excellent ouevre, giving her goth-folk drama queen tendencies room to roam far and wide.
On title alone, Olsen’s recent follow-up All Mirrors appears to play with that endless refraction: ironically, people immediately took it in a different direction.