Unpopular Advent 2019 – Day 20

Angel Olsen – ‘Chance’ from ‘All Mirrors’ LP

I’ve always enjoyed Angel Olsen’s albums but could never escape the feeling that they too often felt like a few great songs held together by just so much unmemorable filling. ‘All Mirrors’ however is certainly the record to buck that trend, feeling by some distance the most coherent album that Olsen has yet made. There is a roundness to this record that I have felt previously lacking, a unity of aesthetic that pervades each creaking crack and corner. The mood is set immediately by the striking black and white cover shot of Olsen surrounded by black faux-fur (one assumes it is faux – somehow anything more ‘real’ would feel strangely inauthentic in 2019). It vaguely recollects David Bailey’s portrait of Jagger, which is no bad thing of course. If I were being picky though I would say I would have preferred the lighting a little less harsh and a touch more grain in the print so that it perhaps cast an eye to some of the shots from Roy DeCarava’s ‘The Sound I Saw’ body of work (republished in a new edition in 2019 after too many years out of print), for there is certainly something of the smoky basement bar jazz mood to much of Olsen’s record.

Only the latter part of six-minute plus album opener ‘Lark’ really belies the overall mood of deeply shaded mystery, being strangely (in the context of what follows) robust, dynamic and almost muscular. Heard in that wider context of the album’s unfolding mood, this seems almost as a moment of cathartic release necessary to allow Olsen the darkened space into which she can drop and disappear. Indeed, oftentimes Olsen sounds barely there (as on the exquisite ‘Impasse’ and ‘Endgame’), a beat figure sitting solitary by the ashtray surrounded by empty whisky glasses.

There are many synthetic sounds threaded through the songs on ‘All Mirrors’ and whilst at times this gives the record a peculiar 1980s tinge, it never feels anything other than contemporary. Olsen achieves this by balancing the synthetic with what sound very much like ‘authentic’ instruments, notably swathes of luxurious strings through which many of the songs slink seductively, like smoke drifting from the black corners of the soul. Caught in the light of Olsen’s voice these strings shiver and merge into sleek fingernails on the spine, setting off shudders of deep discordant pleasure, just so. It’s the relationships between each of these elements that really bring the pleasure, as we feel the tension between real and unreal, those moments when this world dissolves into that, as perception flickers and the invisible threads of existence puncture our souls.

It all reaches perfect poise on six minute album closer ‘Chance’, where Olsen seems to reach a moment of clarity. Here we find resolution of sorts in a song that seems simultaneously assured yet softly, sadly resigned. It’s a deliciously sumptuous arrangement that wouldn’t be out of place on a 1950s set by Doris Day. Olsen murmurs ’It’s hard to say ‘forever’ love… forever’s just so far’ before sweeping away on the almost whispered ‘why don’t you say you’re with me now with all of your heart’ and then into a gently fading diminuendo that dims the lights and kisses our eyelids goodnight.

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