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Angel Olsen, performing on June 1, 2017 in Milan, Italy. Sergione Infuso/Corbis via Getty Images hide caption
Sergione Infuso/Corbis via Getty Images
When Angel Olsen proclaims she is “hiding out inside my head” on the first track of her epic fourth record, All Mirrors, she may as well be announcing an earthquake, or a tidal wave — a tectonic force of change. These five lightning words arrive after a moment of quiet, of Olsen reflecting on a relationship’s twilight. Thunder follows. And as if passing through Alice’s looking-glass only to shatter it, Olsen grows to her most towering height, strong in the storm, her voice absorbing the gravitational force by which this baroque maelstrom of synth drones and strings, “Lark,” will crash and ebb for more than six minutes. Clear above the turbulence, Olsen claims a gargantuan space. She is steadfast, resolute, alone.
Olsen’s songs treat solitude like a promised land, where simply breathing under a clear blue sky can feel as dazzling as an MGM production, where in lieu of a single person at your side, you can have a love affair with the world. “Lark” shuttles her away from the wreckage of a breakup, in her head but head-on, channeling the classic Fiona Apple maxim “mind is your might,” facing the dimension of dreams.
Her dreams, for that matter, have scaled colossally across this decade. With the smoldering early folk-rock albums Half Way Home and Burn Your Fire for No Witness — the latter is a six-word manifesto for creative survival — she became a patron saint of emotional resilience. No song in Olsen’s catalog has narrated this quite as lucidly as the spectral “Lonely Universe,” from 2012: “I was only a child / About to lose my childlike mind,” she sings, a tale of innocence lost, autonomy gained, each grounding note a search for fortitude. Olsen’s eloquent songs suggest that a prerequisite to reaching anyone is turning seriously inward. “Some days all you need is one good thought strong in your mind,” went 2014’s “Lights Out” as she trilled the last word, mind, an almost mystical proposition. “Your thoughts exist in someone else’s head,” she sang, prayer-like, on 2010’s “If It’s Alive It Will,” a sublime affirmation for the poet-recluses among us.
In a series of clips from 2011, Olsen performs the germinal songs of her debut EP, Strange Cacti, at Kim’s Video in the East Village, with just a guitar and a practice amp. To watch Olsen share her well of wisdom in this ad hoc setting, surrounded by old VHS tapes, feels like cosmic perfection now. The songs of All Mirrors began this way, too — solo, before Olsen collaborated with Ben Babbitt and Jherek Bischoff to power them with ornate orchestral arrangements that crescendo into the red. Olsen has long mentioned a love of Portuguese fado music, and within All Mirrors‘ swarming, awe-filled songs are the markings of its dark, tempestuous heart and searing drama.
If All Mirrors tells a tale, it might be how to maintain a sense of self while navigating the unknowable currents of being a person, as they eddy and simmer and lash in perpetual motion. (“When you think of a happy ending with someone, you’re really lying to yourself,” she told me recently. “There’s always stuff to work on.”) The songs, accordingly, are often unusually structured — finding new ways forward. “Impasse” is a forbidding wind that splits All Mirrors in two. The stark “Tonight” is a divine overture, the logical conclusion to Olsen’s soul-steadying “Unf***theworld” from Burn Your Fire for No Witness. When Olsen delineates the things she likes about herself — the air, her thoughts, her bracing clarity, the “life that I lead without you” — it’s classically transcendent, as if the song is becoming a part of the atmosphere. You can almost hear cicadas in the strings and see dew, or the sun beginning to touch the ground.
Even the more conventional songs play tricks here. “Too Easy” has an air of the Troggs’ hyper-romantic classic “Anyway That You Want Me,” as Olsen sings of crushing the ego in the name of love, something “bigger,” but her voice also contains a twisted mania that makes it sound like a cautionary tale. The galactic gallop of “What It Is” feels like a counterpart, as the strings slash like lasers, a temperature check on the intentions of infatuation: “You just wanted to forget,” she sings coolly, wryly, “That your heart was full of s***.” And the smitten synth-pop of “New Love Cassette” is only simple on the surface, as Olsen sings about wanting to be someone’s “strength” and “breath.” Elegantly, “Spring” begins as a ballad from one woman to another, with Olsen holding an old friend’s baby — “Remember when we said / We’d never have children?” — territory that quickly becomes existential. “I’m beginning to wonder if anything’s real,” she laments.
Through it all, Olsen’s radiant musical transformations are a testament to her constant message of self-reliance. They require one other. The magnificent sound of All Mirrors — nodding to the orchestral outsiderdom of Scott 3, or the grandeur of a Jon Brion production, but evoking no one more than Olsen herself — embodies a Bowie-istic promise of curiosity and change. Where she once sang “I wish I had the voice of everything,” she now makes her most tangible appeal for one, because she has a voice of possibility.
She never shies away from the world’s complexity, or her own. The labyrinthine heights of “Lark” reflect as much, as does the title All Mirrors. Olsen said she was reading about the women of Surrealism, such as the fantastical Spanish painter Remedios Varo, while at work on the record. The mirror is one of that movement’s most potent images, a reminder that things are often not what they seem, that every surface is a possible site of recognition or distortion. In the slow, somnambulant rotations of “All Mirrors,” Olsen repeats, “at least at times it knew me,” and whatever “it” may be, the implication is that Olsen, more often, is misunderstood. In turn, it is still possible to attempt to know oneself. Among the bold, Cocteau-evoking gestures of the “All Mirrors” video, Olsen wears a Russian headdress, called a kokoshnik — inspired in part by the 1924 film Aelita, Woman From Mars — as a nod, she has said, to self-commitment. As in most all her videos — including the high-wire “Lark” short film, in which Olsen escapes a volatile relationship,` communes with mountains — she is alone in the world, staring us in the eye.
Olsen wrote “Lark” about the verbal abuse she has endured in relationships — when she quietly sings that “the way you scream like something else is the matter” before “Lark” explodes into relief, the “scream” is not metaphor. “Lark” sounds fittingly monumental in response, a tornado amassing speed. “I used to let everyone make me feel small,” Olsen has said. “But I can’t do that anymore. You will see my rage.” In her lyrics, Olsen refuses to sweep the transgressions under the rug; the clenching power of her voice cuts a swarm of strings like a knife, like a bird clipping through fog. To neglect the details, she seems to suggest, would be to disrespect love as a concept entirely. By All Mirrors‘ glistening torch-song of a closer, on “Chance,” Olsen is “leaving once again, making my own plans,” not resigned but calm. “Chance” in particular evokes the energy of a solitary woman, in flight, as if wondrous Judy Garland were starring in a nonlinear Agnes Varda film — another artist who prized a radical openness — wandering through city streets with the assurance of nothing but her thoughts, her skepticism and her grace. “I wish I could believe all that’s been promised me,” Olsen sings, her voice welling. That these songs move by their own internal logic — speeding, slowing, striding at will — makes them stronger still.
“Why do we write?” asks Patti Smith in her 2017 book, Devotion. “A chorus erupts. Because we cannot simply live.” With emotional intelligence and sonic daring, All Mirrors honors this notion. On “Lark” and “All Mirrors” especially, the string arrangements swell like a regal fortress, as if Athena is going to battle to protect her dreams in an era engineered for complacency. There is nothing complacent about Angel Olsen. Her catalog is an intervention in an ever-swiping-and-scrolling time that would rather distract you away from the supreme potentials of solitude, towards spiritual oblivion; a pristine comfort and compass for people to whom the world too often says, “No.” Now, more than ever, it is also an armor.
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