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Angel Olsen’s All Mirrors is a gorgeous but fatiguing listen

Angel Olsen
Photo: Cameron McCool

Angel Olsen originally planned to release two different takes on her fourth album, All Mirrors, simultaneously: a solo version and a full-band rendering of the songs. As Olsen details in a letter packaged with the All Mirrors promo, however, once she dived into work with collaborators—including frequent co-writer Ben Babbitt, who contributes string arrangements, piano, and various instruments, and orchestral conductor Jherek Bischoff, who also arranges on several songs—she felt drawn to releasing the fleshed-out version first.

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It’s easy to hear why: Produced by John Congleton, All Mirrors is a big leap for Olsen beyond rough-hewn indie rock and haunting folk, a stark and attention-grabbing collection where dramatic string accents shroud monochrome post-punk synths and sparse rhythms. Accordingly, her vocals are also sleeker—velvety and throaty like a cabaret performer on some songs, art-pop glassy in other places—and exhibit a range of emotions: skeptical after some deep introspection, or weighed down by sadness. In Olsen’s catalog, the album already feels like an analog to Kate Bush’s The Dreaming, which is a challenging record known for its bold boundary-stretching.

All Mirrors starts off strong with the superlative “Lark.” The song begins with Olsen at the forefront, half-murmuring regrets about a past relationship as strings gather steam behind her. At the end of the first verse, her grief breaks and overflows, as she hollers the lyrics, “Hiding out inside my head it’s me again it’s no surprise I’m on my own now.” As “Lark” progresses, and Olsen unpacks more of her anger and anguish, the strings become more urgent and unsettled. Near the five-minute mark, she wails, “You say you love every single part,” before the strings immediately kick in like a torrential downpour, enveloping her as she exclaims, “What about my dreams? What about the heart?”

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The song is even more stunning because it’s bolstered by incisive instrumentation that allows Olsen’s frustration to boil over in a natural, affecting way. Unfortunately, All Mirrors doesn’t maintain this subtlety, in large part because the high-alert string arrangements overpower the album’s dynamics and delicacy. The synth-cloaked “New Love Cassette” is dragged down by a plodding tempo that’s exacerbated by these heavy-handed accents, while the nuance of other songs is overshadowed.

In fact, it’s fatiguing to listen to All Mirrors straight through, which makes it easy to overlook the collection’s highlights: the oceanic torch song “Impasse,” with its gothic bass fuzz and buzzing-beehive strings; the St. Vincent-esque “What It Is” and its galloping, pizzicato string accents; or the jazz-kissed sprawl “Endgame.” Even songs without strings suffer by extension: The foggy ’70s-rock homage “Spring”—which boasts piano, Mellotron, and various guitars—is sunk by overly busy instrumentation, while the exquisite French-pop trifle “Too Easy” is plush but slight.

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As usual, however, Olsen’s piercing lyrics go a long way to redeem shortcomings. All Mirrors often wrestles unsparingly at what could’ve been—“What It Is” comes to the realization that a relationship’s façade was deceiving, while “Spring” features the particularly brilliant lines, “Remember when we said we’d never have children / I’m holding your baby now that we’re older”—but is determined not to be burdened by the past. “Endgame” finds a protagonist finally having clear-eyed perspective on what sounds like a messy split, while “Chance” tries to live in the moment: “All that space in between where we stand could be our chance.” And, despite the thick and layered arrangements, Olsen’s emotional range always shines through. “At least at times it knew me,” she repeats on the title track, with varying shades of sadness and resignation.

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.

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About the author

Annie Zaleski

Cleveland-based writer seen in many places. Fond of dusty record stores, good sushi and R.E.M.