by Phil Scarisbrick
When we describe songs, we generally focus on production and presentation rather than the basic words and chord patterns that make them up. This is because what we hear, and the way it emotionally connects with us, is something far greater than the words that are being sung. That is why key decisions on how the songs are presented can make or break them. The motives for such decisions generally boil down to two key elements: maximising artistic vision and maximising commercial potential. Both can exist simultaneously, but one can also exist as a detriment to the other. For her new record, All Mirrors, Angel Olsen recorded two versions. One is a stripped down, bare-bones recital, while the other is awash with lavish strings and a whole heap of reverby goodness. The latter is the version that we get to hear first, but is this a cynical commercial decision, or is it exactly how we should be hearing the songs?
As you’d imagine, there is no simple answer to that question. The best songs on the record are utterly encapsulating. New Love Cassette washes over you with a gorgeous melody that is backed by a shimmying synth bass, and sharp strings that add real drama to a song about a complicated love. The title track again utilises synths and reverb to set the atmosphere – this time musing on the idea that we are all mirrors for each other, yet we may feel intimidated by what we discover about ourselves and who we should be. The string breakdown in the bridge explodes into a final verse and chorus that are utterly delightful. Album opener, Lark, is a song that Olsen says took her many years to finish. In this respect, the production direction of All Mirrors allowed her to countenance the disjointed nature of the verses and chorus, and present them in a dramatic, and ultimately enrapturing way. The verses swell with the album’s signature strings, before exploding into choruses that evoke the jeopardy that our narrator feels, as she struggles to come to terms with how her changing circumstances put her at odds with promises she made to loved ones.
There are songs here though that, sans strings, would be nothing more than half-baked ideas in need of serious fleshing out. Impasse is a more than four minute slog that never really goes anywhere, while the following track – Tonight – is almost unintelligible at times. You couldn’t imagine either track would work without the album’s lavish production, and – even with it – they feel instantly forgettable. Despite these missteps though, the record is a pretty fine thing indeed. Endgame is a ballad that could sound track a love story from cinema’s golden era, while What It Is sees Olsen in a playful, self-deprecating mood, for what is one of the album’s highlights.
While the album isn’t perfect, the best moments are utterly stunning. Olsen has always shown promise that she could create a ‘classic’ album, and All Mirrors is as close as she has come. Not only because of the production, but because she has written some beautiful songs too. The album closer, Chance, is a fine example of how this production has enhanced the artistic vision, even though you’d imagine the song would thrive if it was simply Olsen’s voice and a piano. So while we await the inevitable repackaged, stripped-down version of All Mirrors, let’s just enjoy how wonderful this version is. And not forgetting how lucky we are to have an artist like Angel Olsen at all.
Secret Meeting score: 80