Honest reflections on womanhood

Angel Olsen’s fourth studio release expresses a womanhood predicated on pride and honesty.
Angel Olsen’s fourth studio release expresses a womanhood predicated on pride and honesty. PHOTO: JAGJAGUWAR

There are musicians who are accurately described as recording artists - that is, they sound miles better on disc than they do in person - and then, there are a select few who blow your socks off when you catch them live.

Angel Olsen is among the latter coterie of performers. I remember her at the Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona one sweltering Saturday afternoon in June 2017. Seated on the jagged steps of Parc del Forum, one forgot the sea of humanity and the summery heat as Olsen unfurled her slow-burning magic, belting out the songs from her acclaimed 2016 album, My Woman.

I understood at that moment what indie rocker Mac DeMarco reportedly said of his first impression of her: "Holy crow, she's got the pipes!"

Those pipes are indeed in magisterial form on her fourth studio release All Mirrors. They allow her to express a many-splendoured womanhood predicated on pride and honesty.

Co-produced by John Congleton with arrangements by Ben Babbitt and an 11-piece orchestra conducted by Jherek Bischoff, the album is a watershed, a cinematic marshalling of strengths and connections.

How she moves through the tornado, calmly in the eye of the storm. Patient is the cinematic build-up: the way she starts off the first song, Lark, a song about losing trust and support.

"To forget you is to hide/There is still so much left to recover," she starts the first verse in the minor key, strings slowly awakening. "If only we could start again/Pretending we don't know each other."

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    Angel Olsen


    Rating: 4 Stars

She raises her voice in the refrain "Dream on", drums thundering, and cellos, violas and violins sawing through.

Crucially, the maximalist approach is not always cathartic. "All this trouble trying to catch right up with me/I keep moving, knowing someday that I will be/Standing, facing, all mirrors are erasing," she sings, surrounded by laser synths, and a near-impenetrable fog of drums, bass and strings. People are all navigating a hall of mirrors, flitting between truths, and reflections of truths.

This uneasy listening is at work, too, in a retro electro-pop doozie deceptively titled Too Easy. Olsen adopts an unusually airy, coquettish purr, floating through a romantic tick-list - "I'd do anything for you" - until she figures out: "I looked around and found something else/Something that was/Bigger than us."

Similarly, Spring pivots on a pretty melody at the brink of decay. Olsen chirps about true love, having kids, and whatnot over oscillating synths, ending with the realisation: "I'm beginning to wonder/If anything's real/Guess we're just at the mercy/Of the way we feel."

That is why All Mirrors works: Her unerring candour means she does not spare anyone, least of all herself. The self-mockery of What It Is - "And knowing that you love someone/Doesn't mean you ever were in love" - is foiled by an insistently heart-thumping beat and a filigree of throwaway strings.

Elsewhere, you are blindsided by the closing tracks Endgame and Chance, which begin as jazzy, deliciously languorous ballads, but something is not quite in sync. She intones like an old-school chanteuse, but her pace is slower than normal, even disconcertingly somnambulistic, while the constituents, sanity included, are slowly being taken apart.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2019, with the headline 'Honest reflections on womanhood'. Print Edition | Subscribe