Angel Olsen: All Mirrors, review

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Angel Olsen’s new album is ‘the best in her catalogue’, writes Sam Hope

⭐⭐⭐⭐

With the development of the broadly scoped “indie music” genre over the past 40 years, sounds have changed, but a constant pillar of the genre has been the exploration of heartbreak. From Bon Iver’s For Emma Forever Ago to The Microphones’ The Glow Pt. 2, it seems almost every iconic landmark in the scene has explored the melancholy of lost love to an extent other genres have never reached. 

With the release of MY WOMAN, sparking the indie-pop anthem of 2016 with the emphatic “Shut Up Kiss Me”, Angel Olsen’s blend of the punchy hooks of indie rock and the dreamy gloss of the chillwave moment was developed into something greater, something grand, personal yet decade-defining by the desperate strife of relationship troubles driving the songs. Yet here, Olsen seems to extend these Renaissance woman abilities to an actual Renaissance. In style, she uses a soaring 12 piece string section to elevate her music to new terrain, leaving her confessionals with the same sense of grandeur as a Sistine Chapel work. Nowhere is this now immediate and stunning than the opening track, Lark. The song, Using vast orchestral sounds, takes on a spiritual nature, turning these emotions into the almost religiously extra-terrestrial. With the screaming vocals over a massive classical wall of sound, her departure from pop sensibilities towards grandeur is unexpected and breathtaking. Even when adopting her more upbeat poppy past on cuts like What It Is, with a driving bassline and four to the floor drums, the howling violins add an eeriness and displacement from the norm which feels demanding of focus. This too is seen in her most significant foray into the dream-pop sounds of the likes of Beach House yet, with “New Love Cassette”. With its atmospheric Cocteau Twins-esque instrumental, its break from screeching desperation towards peaceful melancholy showcases her diversity, adding structure as a piece of art without fracturing its sense of wholeness. 

Although recognisably her work, this album seems only to build on the past, not losing any sense of the unpolished passion of her previous work with this new lease of artistry. From this initial musical splendour, Olsen enhances the feeling with her lyrics. Despite the saturation of words in modern music with the theme of heartbreak, her writing never once feels cliched or a notable retreading of the ground of her forebears. Nowhere is this better seen in the reminiscent piano ballad-esque closer, Chance, where the closing couplet of “It’s hard to say forever love/ Forever’s just so far/ Why don’t you say you’re with me now/ With all of your heart?” combines simplicity with tragedy for a fitting, gut-wrenching end to the project. Despite on paper not breaking ground – with the inclusion of strings to emphasise heartbreak being found everywhere from The Beatles to Kanye West – there is something so effortlessly fresh about this album. It’s graceful but unruly, beautiful yet haunting; there’s a nagging sense it should not work. However, it stands out as the best album in her catalogue. 

Away from perfect contradiction though, the overwhelming standout feature from this album is magnificence. Maximalism is its key to excellence, even in its quiet moments you can’t help but feel enveloped by its dream-like soundscapes. Although like in her previous albums its lyrics lay her heart bare in an unpretentious, simplistic way (a balance hard to strike as new for modern indie artists in the shadow of a whole culture of acts), the beauty of the piece comes through the unmatched splendour of the symphonic, elevating instrumentals. Upcoming entries could surprise, but this should by all measures be a contender for album of the year.

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