Angel Olsen’s music has always contained its share of sweeping, cinematic perspective shifts—like the moment a film switches from black and white to Technicolor, transforming a dull cobblestone path into a yellow-brick road. “Unfucktheworld,” the bracing acoustic tune that opens her great 2014 album Burn Your Fire for No Witness, begins with Olsen’s voice in a lo-fi muffle, but her vocals suddenly click into a sharper focus at the beginning of the second verse, when she moves from mourning a breakup to reconnecting with her resilience. “It’s not just me for you,” she sings, coming through with newfound clarity, “I have to look out too.” She achieved a similar effect between the first two songs on her breakout 2016 record My Woman, when the dreamy, synth-driven tone set by “Intern” was roused from its reverie by the shit-kicking neo-rockabilly ’tude of “Never Be Mine.” Her music has always been a soundtrack to becoming: Olsen’s sound is constantly shape-shifting, genre-hopping, and above all things blossoming into something more vast than its humble origins. As she put it herself on one of her early singles, “It’s known that the tiniest seed / Is both simple and wild.”
Olsen’s never played with that dynamic quite as effectively as she does on “Lark,” the brilliant first track off her fifth album, All Mirrors, which was released last Friday. The song’s first minute or so finds her hushed voice cataloguing the emotional debris of a recent breakup (“This city’s changed, it’s not what it was / Back when you loved me”), accompanied by little more than a smoldering guitar. Then, all at once, the intimate indie flick becomes a widescreen epic. “Lark” suddenly swells with cavernous percussion, restless strings, and Olsen’s electrified voice, which has hopped up an octave to shout at maximum volume, “Hiding out inside my head! It’s me again! It’s no surprise / I’m on my own now!” Olsen’s frequent collaborator, the director and cinematographer Ashely Connor, crafted a perfect visual to accompany this moment in the song’s video: A spellbinding crane shot pulls away from Olsen until she’s just another speck in a breathtaking mountain landscape. She sprints across the expanse, blissed out on solitude, nature, and the echoing sound of her own voice. The hills are alive with Angel Olsen.
“I don’t know if it’s something I inspire or attract, or if it’s just in the way I’m looking at my surroundings, but drama is something that surrounds my world and always has,” Olsen wrote in an artist’s statement that accompanies All Mirrors. This record is Olsen at her most gloriously extra: The sound is richly layered with synths and strings, her outfits are billowing and strange, and there’s an almost Kabuki-like theatricality to the way she has performed these songs live or in the title track’s haunting music video. Especially when it’s mentioned in relation to women, the idea of “drama” carries all sorts of cultural baggage, conjuring excess, hysterics, and a sense of being out of control. But much like Melodrama, Lorde’s incisive 2017 avant-pop exploration of larger-than-life feels, All Mirrors is a statement from an artist who always seems to exert an immaculate control over her vision. Drama sometimes means streaked mascara, sure. But, in the way Olsen redefines it on this record, it can also be an expression of catharsis, creativity, and finely calibrated power.
Operatic, mood-altering, over six minutes long: “Lark” is one of those opening songs that’s so satisfyingly dense that you can get lost in it for weeks before you’re even ready to move onto Track 2. Plenty more riches await, though. All Mirrors explores some sides of Olsen we haven’t yet heard: The stately ballad “Tonight” aches like Vulnicura-era Bjork, while “New Love Cassette” conjures a neo-goth vibe similar to the one Sharon Van Etten explored on another of the year’s finest records, Remind Me Tomorrow. (Olsen crafts some unexpected sonic rhymes between synth-y drones and the low-end grumble of cello strings.) The bouncy “What It Is” is one of the record’s most upbeat tracks, and also the first Angel Olsen song ever to remind me of Scott Walker, the Beatles, and Tame Impala all at once. “You just wanted to forget that your love was bullshit,” Olsen sings, proving that even at her most melodramatic her songs have not lost their wry, knowing sense of humor.
It’s one of the oldest tricks in the playbook: When a musician is looking to telegraph a more mature or sophisticated sound, they send in the strings. Too often, though, when pop artists bring orchestral arrangements into the mix, it can feel mawkish and rote, as though they’re simply outsourcing gravitas. On All Mirrors, Olsen sidesteps this pitfall with grace. The record’s string pieces were arranged by Olsen’s longtime friend Ben Babbitt and the composer Jherek Bischoff, but Olsen herself was quite involved in the process too; a recent New York Times Magazine profile of Olsen described her “working with arrangers to communicate her vision of string parts that would react to her vocal lines, rather than simply accompanying them.” As they trill, tremble, and whoosh as aerodynamically as birds, these string arrangements—like Olsen’s evocative and ever-unpredictable voice—always seem to be chasing something more complicated than just beauty.
But nothing against beauty—that’s a concern that All Mirrors is very interested in contemplating, venerating, and occasionally dissecting. On the swoony, synth-heavy title track (imagine the famed hall-of-mirrors sequence in The Lady From Shanghai, only with Siouxsie Sioux instead of Rita Hayworth), she repeats the bittersweet line “Losing beauty / At least at times it knew me.” Image isn’t everything, Olsen knows, but it’s not nothing, either. As she’s evolved from a ruminative but no-frills folk singer, Olsen has learned more and more how to play around with her self-presentation. “The world is going to create a character for what you do no matter what,” she told me when I interviewed her in 2016, when she’d just directed a charismatic pair of videos in which she wore a silver tinsel wig. “At least have fun with it. Learn to laugh about it and wear ridiculous shit.” The costuming she’s donned in the All Mirrors era, though, feels a little more serious: The spiked crown she wore on Fallon, the teased-up bouffant she wears on the album cover, and the bombastic silhouettes she strikes in photoshoots all feel like an extension of this record’s depiction of a woman stepping confidently into her power, singing as forcefully and taking up as much space as she possibly can.
The final song on this album is called “Chance.” Like a lot of Olsen’s music, it seems to have come not from the present but an uncanny, half-imagined past (recently profiling her for The Cut, my former colleague Allison P. Davis aptly described Olsen as being “like a celebrity of the 1940s but with weirder hair.”) “Chance” is a big, old-fashioned torch song sung in a subtly modern vernacular: “I wish I could unsee some things that gave me life,” Olsen sings, “I wish I could unknow some things that told me so.” Long after the storm of “Lark,” though, it finds Olsen at last over the rainbow, basking in the calm of acceptance. “I’m not looking for the answer / Or anything that lasts,” she sings. “I just want to see some beauty / Try and understand.” And so, at the end of this stirring record, Olsen is single again, but she’s far from alone—she’s got the company of the natural world, the chatter of her mind, and the hard-earned wisdom of her heart. Even if it’s fleeting, she reasons, maybe beauty can offer a quiet, necessary break from the pressure to figure everything out. I’ll bet the mountains taught her that.