By Bob Marshall
As Album of the Decade lists continue to roll in during the final months of the 2010s, the top spots tend to be populated by three albums, and with good reason. Kanye West's masterpiece of maximalism My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kendrick Lamar's candid portrayal of the Black American experience To Pimp a Butterfly, and Frank Ocean's experimental and eclectic Blonde all were helmed by creators willing to take risks on a unique musical vision of deep personal importance. Their gambles paid off — the resulting albums were acclaimed not only because they sounded unlike anything that had come before them, but also because their influence catapulted their respective genres forward into new territory.
This year, no artist reached for the stars and stuck the landing better than singer-songwriter Angel Olsen. Olsen, who began the decade as a lo-fi folk artist with only an acoustic guitar to accompany her haunting vibrato, has consistently challenged herself with every album to add new instrumentation to aid her in exploring her feelings of uncertainty, isolation, and pain. All Mirrors, her fourth full-length effort in seven years, is Olsen’s most colossal statement yet, pairing symphonic grandiosity with a lyrically moving investigation into heartbreak and what makes it so heartbreaking in the first place. Transitioning away from the hook-forward indie rock of her two previous albums, All Mirrors’s use of shifting dynamics and emotions sets it apart from a landscape of pop where common practice dictates that songs are either loud or quiet, sad or happy, but not both.
Olsen is hesitant to call it simply a breakup album. “It's never about a specific person or one specific event, but instead about multiple events that have been similar in a lot of ways," she told MTV News in October. However, All Mirrors succeeds in encompassing the wide range of emotions that a breakup entails, at times illustrating this spectrum within a single song. “If only we could start again / Pretending we don't know each other,” Angel wistfully reflects over a solitary guitar in the beginning moments of album opener “Lark.” Four minutes later, aided by an abrupt crescendo from her new 12-piece string section, she’s shouting at her delusional titular ex, who uses love as a justification for abusive behavior, “Dream on! Dream on! Dream on! Dream on!” In Olsen’s evolution from reclusive country-folk bard to rebellious indie-rock frontwoman to spectral orchestra conductor, her music has gotten darker, her songwriting more versatile, and her intention more resonant.
The added instrumentation, helmed with the assistance of co-producer John Congleton, with whom Olsen formerly collaborated on her second album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, and arrangements from composers Ben Babbitt and Jherek Bischoff, allows for added depth and nimble changes between moods. All Mirrors’s post-relationship experience is one of perpetual change, best captured through self-reflection as the album’s title implies. It’s exemplified in the transition from the manic euphoria of “I'd do anything for you” on the Cardigans-eque synthpop of “Too Easy” to the quivering admission of “I like the life that I lead without you” on the achingly fragile ballad “Tonight.” Moving on from heartbreak isn’t as simple as inspirational internet quotes suggest, and self-love and empowerment are not exclusive of regret and guilt. Acceptance is not necessarily without pain.
But heartbreak can both propel us into something new and inform what a “someone new” might look like. The entire chorus of slow jam “New Love Cassette” finds Olsen insisting, “Love free / Take me.” “Some people truly are just fucking human vacuums,” she told Pitchfork about the track. “And that song is like: Isn’t it so nice when you meet someone who isn’t?” She resolves on the album’s piano-laden closer, “Chance,” to save herself from being so badly hurt again by avoiding impossible promises. “It's hard to say forever love / Forever's just so far / Why don't you say you're with me now / With all of your heart?”
To say this is a clean romantic resolution, however, would be wrong — and missing the point. The only finite conclusion Olsen comes to is that honest introspection requires an acknowledgement of change, and change is ongoing. On “Spring” she concedes, “How time has revealed how / Little we know us / I've been too busy / I should've noticed.” Instead of finding fulfillment in a relationship, perhaps the goal should be embracing and valuing life’s periods of painful transition and hoping that, along the way, you experience something resembling personal growth.
In Olsen’s case, the result of that growth is All Mirrors, a stunning and cinematic exhibition of her evolution as both a musician and lyricist. By writing about change she’s brought about change in herself, and by indulging in emotional chaos and interrogating her own experiences, she’s unlocked and employed a brand new language for creativity and introspection and put it to work. While it’s one of the best albums of 2019, its ambition and achievement should also place it alongside other 2010s-defining albums that utilized sound and scale to conceive an outsized vision. Or, more simply, All Mirrors is a gift to those of us who loved “Thank U, Next,” but wished it was a little sadder.
Find all of MTV News's 2019 Albums of the Year right here.