music

Angel Olsen’s Lesson in Knowing Yourself—‘All Mirrors’ Album Review

October 27, 2019

Tiia Kelly

For the musical artist, constructing an identity is as much about ‘selfhood’ as it is a marketing tactic. When producing music for public consumption, capitalism asks that a name and image operate as the artist’s cultural marker, be it a performance or an endeavour towards authenticity. How to present a single, enduring image of the self becomes a complicated task when we consider the extreme variability of identity — how it may be lost, found and continually reconstructed.

Angel Olsen’s fourth album was announced in July 2019, alongside a music video for the title track, ‘All Mirrors’. The video sees Olsen in a lush, monochromatic dreamscape, intended to evoke early sci-fi films and the otherworldliness of Kate Bush. Olsen encounters her reflection in several mirrors, is superimposed over images of her own face and body, and meets herself in a range of different costumes, each suggesting a separate impression of the artist. She is a figure repeatedly multiplied and fragmented.

Days later, Olsen elucidated the name, All Mirrors, with a series of tweets, suggesting “we are all mirrors to and for each other”. Noting how personal projection influences our relationships to and with other people, she added:

I just want to know that what I’m seeing is what I’m seeing and not what I’m looking for”. 

Two months later, on October 4th, the album was released— a sonically grand, orchestral collection of 11 songs, each responding to Olsen’s key themes of personal darkness, love, and the need for trust in change. In earlier stages of development, the songs were characterised by an isolated, ‘stripped down’ style, eventually assuming their current forms after collaboration with composers Jherek Bischoff and Ben Babbitt, with producer John Congleton. Backed on all but one track with a 14-piece orchestra, Olsen’s departure from a traditional rock band format is significant. In All Mirrors, the songs are spacious and cinematic, layered with synth and strings. They are stunning and unnerving in their force, comprising a heavier, more physically affecting album than earlier recordings allowed. 

Although Olsen’s record takes place in the aftermath of a breakup, it resists the typical conventions of a ‘breakup album’. Here, the past is not a source of pain, but a catalyst for reflection. The album does not mourn, so much as it makes peace. In imposing opener ‘Lark’, Olsen speaks of a relationship in which two partners hold tenuous, destructive ideas of one another. The second verse stresses this defamiliarisation: 

Wishing we could find one another / All we’ve done is blind one another. 

The impression is of a relationship in which the self has been aligned so staunchly with a vision of the couple that it no longer fits, or can be found, within said vision. Musically, ‘Lark’ is soft and measured until it’s not — the strings of the orchestra build and recede, flourish and whine, asking the listener to share in Olsen’s heap of feeling.

It is this multiplicity of registers that form the album’s shape: switching from light to heavy synth; working through bells and drums; Olsen’s own vocals varying from measured to forceful. The artist produces and exists in a climate of mutability, where change — as an inevitability of life —  manifests through musical flux. In a Crack Magazine feature piece last month, Olsen articulated:

Yes, I know myself, but I also know that the nature of the self, and the nature of the world, and what time does really changes how you view the things you think you know.

Olsen, in life and in lyric, revels in unknowability. In ‘Spring’, speaking similarly of a past love, she sings: “How time has revealed how little we know us”. Later on, she reasons: “Guess we’re just at the mercy of the way we feel”. The lyrics problematise our ability to remain unmoved by people and experiences,  stressing an incapability to view our lives neutrally. Everything we do is done in a particular moment; our thoughts always guided by their emotional context.  How, Olsen wonders, are we to trust what we presume to know? When it comes to relationships, how can we be sure if the person really knows us as we are and not as they want to know us? 

This idea of image — and by extension performativity — is never wholly absent from All Mirrors. Where the album is cinematic in scale and sonic complexity, it also becomes meta-textually cinematic in its final two tracks. In ‘Endgame’, Olsen laments a love in which two people “Made a life / Made a scene / Made up everything”. In ‘Chance’, the notion of  playing a part returns: “I’m walking through the scenes / I’m saying all the lines”. Both songs present a dynamic of performance VS reality, underlining the ease with which we’re willing to construct and occupy false worlds, given  they provide us with the things we think we want. The relationships described in Olsen’s record are a form of theatre for the lovers involved, as grand as they are artificial.

Certain songs also reflect this theatricality in their composition, evoking a range of cinematic sounds. In ‘What It Is’, Bischoff’s sinister, screeching strings bear a likeness to tense sci-fi and horror scores. ‘Summer’ evokes the guitar melody of a western — particularly significant for an album on which the instrument receives sparing attention. ‘Endgame’ calls upon the film noir genre for a sombre flugelhorn outro. Most striking is album-closer ‘Chance’, which takes on, then proceeds to elevate, elements of the 1950’s musical ballad. You can imagine Olsen in an old-school jazz bar, gloves up to her elbows, belting about love and life, the audience’s martini glasses quivering on their tables.

All Mirrors is not without its triumphs. In ‘Tonight’, described by Olsen as the “centrepiece” of the album, the singer finds freedom in her partner’s absence. She revels in the comfort of herself: 

Just don’t have time to explain / All the things you think you’ve come to understand / About me”.

The song is optimistic — the orchestra swelling in and out of itself. The artist is so close to the mic that you can feel her grasping for something, refusing to lose herself in an idea someone else has constructed for her.

Moments of conviction, however, are frequently upended by Olsen’s disquieting, wailing soundscape — a current of destabilisation and uncertainty coursing through even her declarations of resolution. On an album where the music constantly refracts and transforms, grows and shrinks, it’s difficult to view anything as truly comforting, let alone a guarantee. The self, as Olsen presents it, lives within a shifting landscape: our identities unfixed, perpetually in motion, sometimes twisting into unrecognisable forms. As the orchestra’s balletic flourishes repeatedly fry, curdling at their peaks, All Mirrors suggests that attempts at clarity — and by extension, stable knowability — may ultimately be fruitless. 

Nevertheless, the confidence of ‘Tonight’ is not to be dismissed. Olsen strikes the balance between being sure of herself and understanding that the self is never a singular, finished thing. Our identity and the way we perceive the world may be ever-changing, yet there remains power in keeping the self under one’s own domain, never compromising it within another person’s image. In a track-by-track breakdown for Pitchfork, Olsen said:

The thing is, nothing is ever resolved completely. Nothing is ever healed completely. That’s what I’m learning. There’s always stuff to work on. And anyone who says there isn’t, I don’t trust them.

Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Rolling Stone

Olsen recently admitted that she finds the concept of ‘Angel Olsen, the celebrity’ quite “dumb”. As someone who enjoys being at home, she is thankful for the friends she has outside of music who care very little about the public position she holds. As much as one may draw ideas about identity from her work, the artist’s own, real-life identity remains entirely her own. Though her ‘true self’ may well permeate her work, it is irreducible to a single image, and we, as an audience, are rightfully unable to hold her to one. 

In 2020, All Mirrors will be joined by a companion album of Olsen’s original, intimate recordings: a baring wallow to counteract 2019’s overwhelming crash. By allowing the record’s eleven songs to exist in two distinct manifestations, Olsen’s themes of multiplicity and truth will subsist — neither version more real or honest than the other.