Orchestras are indie rock’s new Marshall stacks. That’s fitting on a lot of levels — as a satisfying class-action appropriation of elitist cultural tropes, as a deconstruction of those same tropes, and as an elevation of collectivism over American myths of individualism and exceptionalism that’ve lately been twisted into such ugly shapes. Also: done right, orchestrations just sound dope. There’s plenty of ‘em done right on Angel Olsen’s latest, All Mirrors, her best record yet in an excellent ouevre, giving her goth-folk drama queen tendencies room to roam far and wide.
Those who know Olsen from the stripped-down intimacy of Burn Your Fire For No Witness (“Unfucktheworld”) may be startled by the near-Björkian-grandeur on display here — although her 2016 My Woman clearly showed an artist whose trajectory had yet to be fully measured. Here, songs alternate vast orchestral landscapes with similarly-cinematic band tracks, Olsen’s distressed alto moving from shivering whisper to piercing wail and back again.
The songs are all navigations and negotiations of love, self-interrogations included, and nothing’s simple or clear cut. “Too Easy” is a lover’s rapture rendered suspect by its title, the sound partway between Stereolab and Beach House. “Lark” builds like a roller-coaster lurching up an ascent, suggesting a betrayal and a relationship in full-blown crisis mode, with a finale that may be the most cathartic minute of music you hear this year. At one point, Olsen repeats the phrase “dream on,” more threat than Steve Tyler pep talk; then the string section dive-bombs into mass glissandos as visceral as Skrillex bass-drops, while the singer goes full-ham — “You say you love every single part/ What about my dreams ? / What about the heart ? /Trouble from the start” — and the last crescendo recedes with final notes rendered in electric guitar feedback that, in the wake of the orchestra maelstrom, sounds totally puny (a provocative metaphor itself).
For the string arrangements — the sonic soul of All Mirrors — Olsen worked with both co-writer/bandmate Ben Babbitt and Jherek Bischoff, the multi-tasker who’s collaborated with Amanda Palmer (notably on a tasty benefit set of Bowie covers), David Byrne (see Bischoff’s Composed, issued on The National’s Brassland label), Parenthetical Girls, and others. Some of the strings here conjure Nelson Riddle’s swaddling arrangements for Sinatra and Linda Ronstadt, others shriek and swoop like George Crumb’s Black Angels. The violins et al. on “What It Is” alternate dissonant blasts and violent sawing over a glam-rock strut, while on “New Love Cassette” they’re majestic, set against the dusty R2D2 click of a drum track, a tension Olsen mirrors with a trembling, bird-like chorus set against menacing low-register verses. The strings beneath the gutting mea culpa of “Impasse” roil like vertigo, Olsen hollering “I’m just living in my head!” like it’s both a defense and a confession. The record ends with the comparatively hushed spectacle of “Endgame,” a fully-orchestrated epic in a Julie London ’50s pop style, and “Chance,” a one-woman girl-group plea enobled by miasmic wall of sound, Olsen’s shivering voice asking her lover just to hold the space of the moment, future unwritten, as she rides off into the sunset.
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There’s nothing here quite so immediately hooky as her 2016 Elvis-via-Patti Smith conjuring “Shut Up, Kiss Me.” But Olsen’s up to something different here, inviting a different sort of attention to fully absorb. It’s worth the investment; the emotion’s as visceral as it is complex, and it ranks among the best sounding records this year, deserving to be cranked on a good sound system — an album to spend time with, to fall into, to shut up and let yourself be kissed by.