Angel Olsen has the sort of vocal that can convey enormous, abstract feeling with a single crackle. On the astounding 2016 album ‘My Woman’, the North Carolina-based artist summons pain, despair and hope through every quavering falter and punchy roar. The power of her voice doesn’t get much clearer than on ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’: “it’s all over, baby, but I’m still yours,” she cries in a yearning last-ditch plea for love.
While that album added a dollop of rock’n’roll release to 2014’s spare, lo-fi sound of ‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’, this one piles on rich, orchestral layers. Olsen’s love songs always come with the suggestion that eternal, unchanging love is impossible. Her addictive hooks, and the equally addictive presence of infatuation, feel almost too huge: like they could be snatched away in the gust at any moment. In the giddy arrangements of ‘All Mirrors’, this only intensifies. “Show me a love that won’t ever leave,” she challenges on ‘Spring’.
The orchestral arrangements themselves are things of beauty. Olsen’s tales of heartbreak transport you to a slightly ramshackle old ballroom, gilded with streaks of ornate gold-leaf. Written by Olsen, along with collaborators Ben Babbitt and Jherek Bischoff, they bring a kind of grandeur to the record, and match the shades of her malleable voice. ‘Tonight’ spirals upwards with a theatricality that recalls Max Richter’s ‘Memoryhouse’ and the melancholy waltz of Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks soundscapes.
This record is charged with the precision that characterises much of Olsen’s writing: she skewers the pain of fading love – and the struggle to hang onto it at all costs – with the exacting likeness of a reflection in a mirror.
“Wow, time has revealed how little we know us,” she observes on ‘Spring’, delivering that exclamation so flatly it passes by almost immediately. “I’ve been too busy, I should’ve noticed.” Slinking and grinding with a Parisian synth-strut, the title track is jarring and playful even as its heart is snapped into sharp bits. ‘What It Is’ reels off the various ways in which the rush of falling in love turns life into a breeze: “You just wanted to forget that your heart was full of shit,” Olsen sings, seeming to address herself.
Ultimately this record – her best yet – is about finding a different kind of love: the quiet self-examination after the dust of a break-up finally settles. Heartbreak comes and goes, and other people will always let you down. By looking in the mirror and gazing hard, with ‘All Mirrors’ Angel Olsen seems to conclude that by loving yourself, you’ll make it through the pain in one piece.