The breathtaking songs of Angel Olsen’s fifth album are fleshed out by a 12-piece string section and deliver grand gestures about romance, authenticity, and being simply at the mercy of how we feel.
Angel Olsen is a natural at writing mantras for jaded souls. Burn your fire for no witness. Unfucktheworld. Some days all you need is one good thought strong in your mind. No one’s gonna hear it the same as it’s said. While her music has evolved from lamp-lit folk to boisterous rock’n’roll and ritzy synth-pop, she has always emphasized the importance of self-conviction. This steadfast philosophy, coupled with how wryly she appears to withstand heavy emotional weather, has made Olsen talismanic to fans. But halfway through the tour for her 2016 album My Woman, a messy fallout from a breakup made Olsen realize how disconnected she had become from herself. She decided to make her next album as she had her earliest releases, working almost alone (in remote Anacortes, Washington) to focus on bare-bones songwriting. It also meant trying to elude the accrued weight of her identity: Olsen has said that she and her friends often “joke about how dumb ‘Angel Olsen’ is.”
In the songs Olsen wrote in Anacortes, love and, consequently, her identity became an illusion. What ended up on her fifth album, All Mirrors, are bemused questions about why she would suppress her needs, why she had to deny what she was going through, why the past must keep repeating. The lyrics are often softer and less certain than on her first four scalpel-sharp records. If there is one mantra among them, it’s in the stoned ambivalence of “Spring”: “I’m beginning to wonder if anything’s real,” she sings. “Guess we’re just at the mercy of the way that we feel.”
We don’t yet know what the music from those Anacortes sessions sounds like: A few months after its completion, Olsen recorded a second version of the album with show-stopping string arrangements from Ben Babbitt and Jherek Bischoff (and production by John Congleton). She intended to release both records simultaneously, then realized the power of the orchestrated version meant it had to come first. The two incarnations, one lavish and one threadbare, embody that lyric about how feelings shape reality and identity, and pose a striking challenge from an artist variously misunderstood in the past as “sad girl at the bottom of a well,” feminist autodidact, and silver wig-wearing “character.”
Once both takes on All Mirrors stand side by side, they’ll offer an intriguing case study in interpretation and how form suggests content: Is authenticity regarded as a magisterial group effort or just a lone voice and a guitar? Does devastation hit harder at volume or a whisper? The two albums are also a massive, meta juxtaposition of the feminine archetypes that Olsen has wielded over the past decade—fragility and excess, interiority and high drama, submission and rage—that dares us to distinguish between the person and the performance.
For now, though, all we have is the first part, which would be revelatory in any context. The atmosphere suggests a wracked Cassavetes heroine wandering onto a sparkling MGM set and sinking right into its whipped-cream luxe. Eight of its 11 songs feature a 12-piece string section, with modes ranging from gallant high-romance to Gainsbourg hat-tips to twilit softness. Plenty of acts skew symphonic at some point in their career, and it’s hard for any artist to hold their own against such overwhelming staging and the constant threat of pastiche. But everything from the songs’ surprising dramatic arcs to their granular textures feels integral to Olsen’s songwriting. Take the title track, where she sings about being trapped by her past romances and youthful beauty: The backmasked backing vocals intensify that sense of imprisonment; the synth sparkle that follows it takes an unexpected dip from major to minor, like a sudden changing of the light. And that moment in “Spring” where she sings about being at the mercy of her feelings pushes the song from twinkling lullaby to barbiturate reverie, a total surrender to sensation on a record so recklessly physical it should come with its own parachute.
Not that All Mirrors is just a strong wind that blows in and leaves you undone. Olsen has described All Mirrors as an “angry” record, and even when she isn’t explicitly cursing “DREAM ON DREAM ON DREAM ON” on the skyrocketing “Lark” at an ex who failed to register her desires, the synth-abetted production seethes and shudders, grandeur and ruin existing side by side. But it’s a playful album, too, one that traces the full scope of heartbreak. “What It Is” canters along as Olsen mocks herself for giving in to love’s charade: “You just wanted to forget/That your heart was full of shit!” she sings in a cadence that suggests a sarcastically wagged finger. With its elongated violin notes, “Tonight” is fit for the last flush of romance in a silver-screen love story.
Yet Olsen’s tenderness is directed at herself, having arrived at a clarity where she no longer cares to explain “all the things you think you’ve come to understand about me.” Her composure as she sings these words is as still and inky as the sea against the night sky. The remark could apply just as much to the public as her former lover. Each of Olsen’s artistic developments has been heralded as some sort of permanent shift in her work or her commercial aspirations: Now she’s an indie star. Now she wants to be a pop star. Oh, she’s collaborating with Mark Ronson? She must really want to be a pop star. But the wild range of All Mirrors and Olsen’s vocal performance fly in the face of the idea that identity and artistry are fixed, and consequently turn over how much we can ever know each other, and ourselves.
She finds the nuance and enduring pleasure in her game of faces. While “Too Easy” sends up undying devotion, with moony girl-groupisms to spare, Olsen willfully dedicates herself to someone else on “New Love Cassette”—and the lusty mood, lifted directly from Gainsbourg’s 1971 album L’Histoire de Melody Nelson, indicates her pleasure in doing so. We fall in love again and again because a little self-sabotage never stopped anyone. Olsen suggests that nihilism and optimism are closer than you think, that what feels like knowing yourself is almost always revealed as delusion. On All Mirrors, she glories in that tumult, and the sparks that fly illuminate her bravura turn.