Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Angel Olsen All Mirrors

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.

In that moment, Olsen’s voice suddenly, jarringly switches registers. It transforms into a keening wail, almost a scream: “Hiding out inside my head, it’s me again, it’s no surprise!” That new voice is like a football team crashing through a paper banner. Everything else follows: A thunderous drum beat, a roar of strings, a storm of guitar fuzz. The volume surges upward. In the song’s video, Olsen locks eyes with the camera as it flies up over her head, taking in the dusky blue foothills around her. It’s a thrilling moment, a bracing widescreen transformation.

If all of “Lark” had just built up to that one moment, it would’ve been enough. But that’s not what happens. “Lark” sprawls over seven minutes. It gets quiet again, then loud again, then quiet again. It expands and contracts, like panicking lungs. By the time the song ends, that grease fire has become a dying inferno. “Lark” is a majestic, apocalyptic song, a sign that Olsen is veering off the map into new territory. And then the rest of the album makes good on that promise.

We should be used to it by now. Angel Olsen has never stayed in the same place for long. Her debut, 2012’s Half Way Home, was stark, intense acoustic folk. Its follow-up, 2014’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness, was assured and evocative indie rock. My Woman, from 2016, found room for synthy, swooning pop ballads. Onstage, Olsen went from being a shaggy indie rocker with a dazzling voice to a true rock ‘n’ roll bandleader, a flashbulb-bright star. She’s made a mission out of evolving, shedding past sounds, pushing for bigger ideas. And yet there’s still something almost jarring about the sonic scope of All Mirrors.

Olsen recorded two different versions of the new album. First, she went to Anacortes, Washington — stomping grounds of Mount Eerie, patron saint of stripped-down emotional indie rock — and recorded a stark solo-acoustic album. Then she took the same songs to Burn Your Fire For No Witness producer John Congleton, recording them with the assistance of soundtrack composer Ben Babbitt, orchestral arranger Jherek Bischoff, and an 11-piece string ensemble. Olsen says that she’s going to release the spartan arrangements of these songs, the ones that she recorded in Anacortes, next year. (She calls that version “my Nebraska.”) I’ll be fascinated to hear those takes on the songs, mostly because I can’t imagine how they might sound. The overwhelming waves of sound are just too integral to the album.

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.

There are moments on All Mirrors that sound like scores from ’40s melodramas, and there are parts that sound like experimental orchestral music. On “New Love Cassette,” cello strings violently rip across a humming keyboard oscillation. On “Spring,” an echoing, hyper-processed guitar shares space with a simple, lovely piano figure. “Tonight” has strings that tightly encircle Olsen’s voice, like they’re trying to soothe her. The sounds of the two records are completely different, but the orchestral richness of All Mirrors reminds me of the way Jon Brion surrounded Fiona Apple’s songs on her When The Pawn… album with studio effects, bringing them a new sense of richness.

But even with all this extra stuff ornamenting Olsen’s voice, that voice remains the the focus of All Mirrors. That’s exactly as it should be. Angel Olsen has always been a versatile singer, but she does incredible things with her range here. In the space of a single song, she’ll go from twisted-nerve yelps to mythic incantations to almost-conversational melodic grumbles. And whenever the song calls for her to hit a huge, echoing note, she will come up with the sort of unnatural howl that will make you feel like your blood is freezing.

Olsen wrote these songs after a bad breakup. In a recent FADER profile, she says she went through “a divorce” while touring behind My Woman, though she was never technically married. Olsen isn’t the type of songwriter who goes into specifics, but there’s a whole lot of personal apocalypse in her All Mirrors lyrics. “Spring,” for instance, is a heart-stopped country elegy for a relationship that just wouldn’t work out, an attempt to see it from some kind of mature distance: “Remember when you said that we’d never have children? / I’m holding your baby now that we’re older.” And then, “Wow, time has revealed how little we know us.”

“What It Is,” almost a symphonic rockabilly chug, has Olsen chiding herself, or reminding herself: “You just wanted to forget that your heart was full of shit / You just wanted to forget, you just wanted to forget.” And on the heart-stopping torch song “Tonight,” one of the most outright beautiful songs that Olsen has ever recorded, she sounds wounded and tremulous, but she comes close to something like closure: “I like the life that I lead without you, without you, without you, without you.”

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.

Olsen has always had a gift for choruses that’ll stick with you all day, and she doesn’t really flex that power on All Mirrors. Instead, she sends her voice echoing through these vast temples of sound. You may or may not be able to hum any All Mirrors songs when you’re not listening to it, but it makes for one hell of a sonic experience. I don’t think Angel Olsen really thinks about things on these terms, but All Mirrors couldn’t possibly be better timed. It’s a true fall record, an impeccably layered sweep-you-away headphones record. It’s an opus made of broken, depressed, confused feelings, and it lends weight and dignity to those feelings.

I know the acoustic versions, when we get to hear them, will be great — partly because every Angel Olsen album has been great. She’s four for four. We’ll probably get to hear Olsen’s songs a little more clearly when she removes all the bells and whistles, and I trust that she’s not going to put some bullshit on the market. Still, part of me hopes the acoustic take on the album never comes out, if only because I can’t imagine that it’ll be any better than this.

All Mirrors is out 10/4 on Jagjaguwar.

Tags: Angel Olsen