It’s an easy thing to write a sad sentiment. It's quite another to breathe it full of terrible life.
Like the best soul singers and old-time country music sirens, Angel Olsen’s voice is a bellows — stoking the fires of passion, damnation, and scalding regret with each exhalation. When she sings about taking love for granted on “Spring,” a Beatles-esque piano tune off her latest album, All Mirrors, she makes a cold-as-coal sentiment like “You might be looking over a lonelier shoulder” glow with warmth.
An accomplished singer-songwriter, Olsen’s style is both instantly recognizable and hard to pin down. Her sonic signature shifts from record to record. On early releases like Strange Cacti, Half Way Home, and the stirring Burn Your Fire for No Witness, Olsen’s voice warbled and soared over a bed of skeletal folk-inflected music. On My Woman, Olsen embraced a fuller pop sound and added synths to her repertoire.
On this year’s stunning All Mirrors, she’s taken a page out of the Scott Walker/Serge Gainsbourg circa-Melody Nelson playbook: uplifting songs with orchestral arrangements that can shift from magisterial to tumultuous on a dime. Sometimes she’s a songbird, and other times she’s Bernard Herrmann's The Birds.
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All Mirrors wasn’t going to be this way originally. Olsen had recorded the songs as an unadorned solo project before collaborating with producer John Congleton to create All Mirrors in its current shape. Talking to the Asheville, North Carolina-based singer over the phone, Olsen said that the seeds for the original album were planted while touring for her previous album, My Woman.
“On the last record, I really wanted to revisit some of my older material and see if there’s an audience for my solo work,” Olsen said. “I like playing music with a group of people, and I intend to do both for as long as I can. I just need a break sometimes. I need to nourish that part of my career and my music. And now that I know that there’s an audience for it, it’s even more of an incentive to want to focus on both paths at the same time — hence the double record.”
The double record in question is All Mirrors. In an unprecedented move for Olsen, she plans to release both versions of the album: the dense, orchestral version that dropped this year, with plans in the works to release the stripped-down version in the near future.
Olsen said that both albums are similar in spirit, but that the feel of certain songs changed in the transition.
“A few of the songs were recontextualized in the process,” Olsen said. “They’ve just become more polished and more intense. ‘Lark’ is way darker and moodier than it had been when I played it solo. If anything, it’s made them heavier.”
Moodiness permeates the lyrics on All Mirrors — an album full of dark reflections on loneliness, love, friendships, and happiness.
“My life was in shambles, so I was writing about a lot of stuff that happened to me,” Olsen said of her writing process. “Learning how to grow up and confront certain issues in my life with friends and work and personal relationships. I needed to take a moment for myself to spend some time alone and reflect on what I’ve done in the last seven years. And so I went on a solo tour and wrote a lot while I was on it. I’d journal a bit — three or four pages every day. And sometimes, the thoughts I’d write down was kind of dumb or repetitive or boring, but it was really helpful because it made me realize that I could write in other capacities. It didn’t have to be all just songs. And that made writing songs easier because I was already going through the motions of writing every day.”
Her willingness to cut close to the bone, lyrically and vocally, has helped her develop a devoted fanbase. Olsen said some of her fans have even tattooed her face on their bodies.
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“Just the thought that my face is on anybody’s body is really kind of fucked-up,” Olsen said. “It’s a little off-putting. Why would anyone get my face or my words tattooed on their body? But if it’s inspiring to them, or if there’s something about my music that saved their life or helped them in some way and they felt that this was a way of showing who they are to people and that it was important, I guess that’s fine.”
And much like many of the sad cowgirls and roof-raising torch singers she follows in the footsteps of, Olsen hasn’t let her affinity for singing the blues diminish her sense of humor.
“Sometimes, I like to send those tattooed images of my face on people’s bodies to my friends to cheer them up,” Olsen added. “Just to say, ‘Hey, this is me now. This is what my legacy is now.’”
Angel Olsen is scheduled to perform on Monday, December 2, at The Van Buren. Tickets are $28.50 to $32.50 via Ticketweb.