Released: October 4th, 2019
Angel Olsen is a dreamer. A few years ago, when she uncovered a dream-house in Asheville, it became her obsession. Unable to afford the house at the time, she couldn’t make it her reality, but a few years later she bought a house opposite in the same street. Dream or reality, the image across the road still plays an important symbolic role for her. She brought this story to light in an interview with The FADER this year. “Now, every day when I leave my house, I look at my dream house,” she says. “And that’s all I needed. I needed it to be something that existed in my mind as a dream house, and it’s so symbolic for me. As you get older, you romanticize narratives about the people in your mind, about the people you love, why you’re close to certain people, like, It’s so sweet we both loved poetry.”
Olsen’s All Mirrors is an exploration of the dreams and illusions of her own mind, and the strain and joy these place on her sense of self. In the aftermath of a break-up, she faces up to her own visions of romantic love and forever-love; whilst also bringing to light the illusion of the artist, of language, of her hopes and dreams. Far from the stripped-back, smokey, singer-songwriter folk of her early albums, her use of a 12-piece string-section fills the album with a new voice, allowing her distinctive vocal tones at times to take a back-seat. Though a continuation of the lonely heartache of her former albums remains, her self-awareness brings with it a lightness and optimism that allows us to be optimistic even in her most painful moments.
While Olsen’s dream-house encourages her to fantasize about the future, many tracks of All Mirrors find her nostalgically looking backwards at former romances. She captures these distant realities through a variety of illusory images. As love in a movie in “Chance”: “I’m walking through the scenes / I’m saying all the lines”. Or with a vision of heaven in “Spring”: “Give me a heaven / just for a while / make me eternal / there in your smile”. She both indulges in and satirises the other-wordly narratives she finds herself continually falling into. Olsen is aware of her own susceptibility to fall into these traps, but they nonetheless expand the worlds within which she can bring her memories and music to life.
But her tendency to construct and buy into these illusions is not without complication. She recognises her own vulnerability in buying into these fantasies, and how she can lose part of herself in the process. Title track “All mirrors” captures the essence of this. Confronting her reflection in the mirror, she reminisces of a youthful beauty which has faded. “Standing, facin’, all mirrors are erasin’ / Losin’ beauty, at least at times it knew me”. As she compared this to her idyllic relationships which once were, she struggles to confront her new reality. The elision on the shortened words: facin’; erasin’; losin’ – further reinforce this. Even her words and language are degraded – something lost, or missing, that once was.
This sense of erosion is reinforced in Spring, where the duality of the artist is brought into question. “How time has revealed how little we know us / I’ve been too busy, I should’ve noticed”. It’s unclear if the ‘we’ she refers to here is her and a former partner; or simply the two co-existing versions of herself: Olsen as artist, Olsen as individual. Has Olsen committed so strongly into her life and narrative as an artist that she has left her former self behind? While the album is inherently inward-focused, Olsen prevents the album from slipping into indulgence. Her awareness allows her to bring light-hearted moments of self-mockery: “maybe you just want / Just to feel something again / You just wanted to forget / That your heart was full of shit”.
With a voice as distinct and powerful as her own, Olsen tactfully avoids becoming over-reliant on it; which brings with it a certain humility. Instead she makes use of thick periods of instrumentation, like the meandering guitar solo on “Spring”, or the various climaxes of the 12-piece string orchestra, such as those on “Lark” and “Tonight”.
Her structural skill enables her to keep the album dynamic whilst empowering some of her key themes. The way in which her voice is slowly overpowered by the string orchestra on “Lark” is an excellent example of her own humility; her voice becomes secondary to the powerful strings which build slowly and eventually envelope her – muting her cries in the process. A couple of tactful tempo changes, those in “Too easy” and “Summer” allow her to sweep us away from feelings of darkness towards moments of optimism – breaking through periods of turmoil to provide us with respite. “And then one moment I was blown away / And there was nothing left that I could say.“
It is a testament to Olsen’s composition that she can make use of the strings in such a variety of ways. From the epic climaxes of “Lark” and “Summer” to the mellow romantic strings of “Endgame”, evoking tones of 60s love-songs. Synths and kicks in “Too Easy” bring a cinematic, dream-like conception of former romance to life in a sound calling back to the synthy-pop of My Woman. Her commitment to variety within the confines of her tonal-range push her away from center stage, allowing her to drift in and out of focus – much like the evasive self she finds so difficult to grasp.
Olsen poignantly captures the extent to which romantic journeys are so often a journey of the self. Constructed within illusory frameworks that even awareness cannot help us from falling into. Within these frameworks we find our reflections. Each mirror a phantom of a certain reality that brings our own vulnerability into question. Olsen extends the range of her compositional capacity here, incorporating new instruments to expand her sound and strengthen her message. All mirrors is a confident depiction of the troubled understanding of our self in the midst of heartache: if it’s all mirrors, where does the illusion end and truth begin?
Ben Rogerson is a writer based between Amsterdam and Berlin. He mainly avoids writing by attending the cinema by day, and music by night.