By Coleman Bandy
Angel Olsen has a beautiful voice. That’s what most listeners latch onto when first hearing the mercurial Missouri-born artist. “The Waiting,” the best song on Olsen’s debut 2012 studio album Half Way Home, immediately stood out as a perfectly poppy psych-folk stunner, an odd but endearing cut featuring a singer who sounded like Elephant 6 by way of Judy Garland. There’s a timelessness to “The Waiting” that has since populated all of Olsen’s best tracks; it could have been lifted from some lost 1960s Judy Collins album or beamed from a spaceship 50 years from now. Yes, her voice is something special. Her songs, however, are even more impressive.
All Mirrors, out now, is Olsen’s newest and best album of original material, and one of 2019’s best records overall. Reteaming with Burn Your Fire for No Witness producer John Congleton, Olsen uses lush, orchestral instrumentation, dreamy synthesizers, and whirring electro-beats to accentuate her already-remarkable vocals and push them closer to the sublime. It’s an epic record that takes its production cues from a variety of sources, from Revolver-era Beatles to Father John Misty circa Pure Comedy. In short: this is Angel Olsen going for broke.
But the extravagant production choices would all be for naught without the gorgeous melodies that make up the bulk of All Mirrors. Take “Spring,” a lovely song indebted to Beach House but one that Olsen makes entirely her own — as a lyricist, she’s never been more confident or heartfelt. Careening back and forth between upbeat reflection and despondent indignation, Olsen asks an ex-boyfriend “Remember when we said / We’d never have children? / I’m holding your baby / Now that we’re older / How time has revealed how / Little we know.”
Before Olsen and Congleton decided on All Mirrors’ opulent final mix, Olsen recorded an acoustic cut of each track by herself, initially wanting to release the pared-down version as-is (she still plans to put out the acoustic version next year). Olsen calls it her ‘Nebraska,’ a nod to Springsteen and his similarly sparse sixth studio album. I can’t imagine All Mirrors in this context. The title track and “Lark,” especially, sparkle with an incandescent sheen that finds power in the deeply dramatic, Olsen straining her vocal chords and nearly screaming her lyrics as if she’ll never sing again.
Let’s hope she never quits. All Mirrors represents Olsen in firm command of her craft, cementing her status as one of the most consistently great pop musicians of the 21st century. The final song on Mirrors is “Chance,” a slow-burn in which Olsen picks up the pieces following a failed relationship. “I’m leaving once again / Making my own plans / I’m not looking for the answer / Or anything that lasts / I just want to see some beauty / Try and understand / If we got to know each other / How rare is that?” Like much of Olsen’s best music, “Chance” – and All Mirrors as a whole – is a cacophony of emotion: both sad and hopeful, grateful and regretful, bitter and sincere. When the acoustic version is inevitably released, perhaps the stripped-down songs will be revealing. Until then, it’s a pleasure to revel in what she’s already given us: a lavish and bombastic masterpiece.
Definitely check out her stellar Oct. 4 performance on The Tonight Show:
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