Thursday, October 10, 2019

album review: 'all mirrors' by angel olsen

It feels like I've been struggling to get onboard with Angel Olsen for years now.

And what's frustrating is that it always feels like there's just one or two elements that get in the way of things really clicking. She's a terrific singer, but sometimes she's stuck with production that doesn't flatter her unique timbre or style. The production can often swell with portentous presence and purpose... and wind up dragging if the climax doesn't connect. She's a strong songwriter, but I often run into quibbles of nuance and framing that just don't pay off as strongly as I hoped. And all of this is surrounded by the fact that in the lo-fi, alternative country-adjacent scene, she is surrounded by acts that might not have her unique pipes but can stick the landing a little more strongly.

But there were two things that prompted me to check this album out anyway, the first being that in 2017, she teamed up with Alex Cameron for the song 'Stranger's Kiss', which showed that with a potent groove beneath her and some punchy synths she could ride an absolutely terrific song, one of the best of that year. And I kept thinking about that song when for #2, I heard that her newest album All Mirrors was not just going to be a pivot towards baroque pop with huge, lush string arrangements, but also an embrace of synthesizers. Which... alright, I didn't love how she utilized them on MY WOMAN but maybe there'd be a little more focus and clarity this time, especially given how much the music press has slung critical acclaim at her this year - although given the recent avalanche of critical acclaim at baroque pop acts spanning from Lana Del Rey to Julia Holter to Weyes Blood in the past year, I do take that with a grain of salt. But fine, I still really wanted to like this, so what did we get with All Mirrors?

Ugh, this is incredibly frustrating, because with every listen I've given to All Mirrors, the more I understand exactly why people like it, and why critics are falling all over themselves to praise this as one of the best of the year, for many of the same reasons Titanic Rising by Weyes Blood has gotten so much acclaim in a similar space. And it's not like there aren't parallels: a huge expansion in sound towards the most opulent baroque pop production they've ever had, a lot of weighty elegance that gives you the impression that grand ideas are being conveyed. Hell, I might even appreciate Angel Olsen's work more here, because it doesn't feel as thematically dissonant in its callbacks to this era of overly arranged 60s and 70s easy listening and baroque pop, with much of the scope of the songwriting kept more personal. In other words, this is set up to work that much better for me... and yet I'm still kind of lukewarm on it. Again, it's far from bad - and I feel I have to stress this given I already can see the backlash coming - but I don't think it's great and it's really a number of little things that keep it from really clicking for me.

And I think I have to start with the compositions and production, and I'm going to make an effort to separate the two because this might the root of the dissonance for me: given the callback to a lush, elegant era of pop, for as heavily arranged and huge as these songs are produced, you would expect that the recording and mixing would be top-notch, giving every tone room to breathe and swell and for the harsher moments to really cut. And John Congleton is a great producer, especially with St. Vincent and albums playing in similar elegant but jagged material like Strange Mercy... so it's genuinely jarring when for all of the huge strings arrangement and Angel Olsen cutting loose vocally, parts of the mix sound bricked, with clipping at the top of the mix that cracks that illusion of elegance, especially in comparison to the past - and while I can see it being excused for a cut like 'Impasse' that's trying to be melodramatically dark, it's a poor excuse when the vocal mixing still sounds muddy. Now credit to Congleton, producing an album of this scope, especially with Angel Olsen as such a dynamic singer across a big register, but he's produced for her before on Burn Your Fire For No Witness - and going back to that review, part of my biggest issue with that album was slapdash vocal mixing that never grasped how to properly center her in the mix! And when you factor in a lot of breathy echo and sweeping effects around her voice when you introduce the glossy waves of synth stolen from Beach House for interplay with the strings like on the title track, you have another case where it feels like Angel Olsen's unique tone and songwriting - which again I must highlight is always the best part of any Angel Olsen album - is fighting for air amidst a mix that's going to suffocate it, and that's not counting the moment where she opts for a gentler coo that requires a subtlety this production doesn't come close to giving her, like on 'Tonight' and 'Too Easy', especially given how huge everything else in the mix sounds from the drums to the buzzy synths, or on 'New Love Cassette' that cello. 

This is unfortunately not helped by some of Angel Olsen's delivery - I've said before that for as dynamic of a singer as she is with a powerful range, her tendency to bend around words and tones can be a bit of a mixed bag and that's not counting the points where she can sound a little nasal or flat, or interpret a vocal line in a way that doesn't really match the arrangement. Take 'Tonight', probably one of the most restrained songs on the album that gradually builds its aching strings section and it does sound beautiful - but Olsen herself doesn't modulate beyond barely a whisper, and it leaves the song feeling abortive - arguably my biggest issue with her quivering delivery against a mix suffocated in reverb on 'Endgame' as well, even if I do really love the horns. Or take 'What It Is' with its fat pulsating groove against the richer strings - why is Angel Olsen singing behind a compressed lo-fi filter, and why was there no real change-up to drive the song home, or just let her cut through that cymbal fizz that saturates the mix? Or take the gentle attempt at acoutics on 'Spring' - why instead of cultivating warmth or intimacy the drums are cranked up and the mixing sounds hemmed in at every turn, and that's before the keys just go off key? Now that's not saying there aren't moments that work: opening track 'Lark' has the sort of sizzling but pummeling impact that earns its melodrama, I really like the well-balanced elegance of 'Chance' even if I think the ending is a little slight, and while the faster groove and acoustics driving 'Summer' might sound like a fusion of Lana Del Rey and Lindi Ortega with too much reverb, but it's a song with a driving pulse and one of the few that bothers to have momentum. That's the other significant issue I have with this project: not that it's too long, but it plays a lot longer than it is, mostly thanks to slow tempos and a significant lack of groove. And when so many of your songs bring such size to the table - especially in the drums and walls of strings - it falls in a weird grey zone where it doesn't overwhelm the senses like a Swans album, but is ponderous to the point where you're looking for either the tempo to kick up a notch, a hook to materialize, or just something to pay it all through.

Now normally this would be where I'd point to the content and songwriting, which, again, is by far the best part of any Angel Olsen album - and indeed, I'd say it is here as well, albeit stripping her bare poetry down even further to the most spare and unmoored it's ever felt. It's an interesting pivot and one that Angel Olsen has done intentionally, in order to break away from the projections of an audience upon her, which is why we get a song like 'Impasse' where she sarcastically blows through everyone who projected their emotions upon her and think they know her better than herself. It's probably the angriest she gets on the project and even if it reads like those Lana Del Rey tweets blasting Ann Powers for her NPR piece, in the context of the searching nature of this album it makes sense. 'Lark' sets the scene by blowing apart an emotionally abusive relationship with a guy who is self-obsessed and unloading all his demons on her - later reflected on 'Tonight' and all of its projection - and from there the album's arc is to buck against those projections as she finds the core of her own identity, although open to an expectation of change across time, like the homespun musings of 'Spring' seeing her friends settle down, or the weary acceptance of hard times in the past on 'Summer'. This actually translates a weakness I noted on MY WOMAN into a strength, where it felt like she's being led by her passions before now tempers the hand grabbing hold of the wheel, where 'What It Is' reflects upon going through the motions of being in love and thinking you 'get it' without ever really finding the feeling, and 'Endgame' becomes the frank acknowledgement that it wasn't the loss of love and passion that really stung, but other needs. And while cuts like 'Too Easy' and 'New Love Cassette' feel a little slight, I actually really like how the album ends on 'Chance' - at this point, she can't contextualize whatever love forever would look or feel like, especially given how she's had that before and it's fallen to the wayside, so she's just looking for what things can be right now that's wholehearted and honest. It's a beautiful, simple moment where she wishes she wasn't so jaded and she wishes all expectations of time and change to be thrown aside just for the now, and it's genuinely striking...

And that's the big frustration with All Mirrors: I think the album is well-written, still contains the emotional nuance Angel Olsen has always had, and if you don't care for production quibbles and are just looking for this album to wash over you, I can see it wining over a lot of people. But unfortunately for me it highlights a series of compositions where the big swings of theatricality get in the way of the writing, especially when there are notable flaws in that production design. Apparently Angel Olsen also recorded this album with a much more stripped back mix, more reminiscent of the solitary writing sessions she had, and I genuinely want to hear it - I think a fair few of these songs will play better in a more acoustic atmosphere, although ideally a well-mixed composite with songs from both versions would probably be the best of both worlds. But as it is... I'm giving this a very strong 6/10 and a recommendation, but I don't think this is the best version of this album. Again, I've had a very mixed record when it's come to baroque pop this year, so take that with a grain of salt, but otherwise... eh, Angel Olsen is on her path now, and who am I to say otherwise?

No comments:

Post a Comment