Maybe it’s the artwork, which is predominantly narcissistic and extremely coffee table, or maybe it’s that she is mentioned by the straights as being “artistic”, or that she regularly features in Guardian style best ofs that has put me off exploring her work. Angel Olsen (even the name, coupled with her elfin looks, implies “taste”) seems to exist in a halfway world between the fake country pop of Taylor Swift and the deep folk Americana of Bonnie Prince Billy, with whom she has collaborated. She has absorbed influences from beyond her years and puts it all together in a very clever, craft(y) way.
This box set brings together her last 2 releases for the Jagjaguwar label (All Mirrors and Whole New Mess) along with a disc of remixes, so fans will already be familiar with this work, but may be swayed by the lavish box which comes with a very generous 40 page booklet featuring handwritten lyrics and the kind of artistic (i.e. black and white) imagery you can easily imagine having deep and meaningful inspirational quotes slapped all over it… you can almost smell it! It’s all so very desirable and deep and reeks of coffee table.
Musically it’s as seductive as the artwork, with Scott Walker style strings and assonant keys providing dramatic counterpoints to the melodies and a clean and precise production that speaks expense. It’s no surprise then to find a cover of Roxy Music’s ‘More Than This’ nestling amongst the treasure, glinting like a polished turd among the bric-a-brac of a jumbled soul… which could well have been an alternative title to this piece had she stayed a little truer to her “punk” roots.
Don’t get me wrong it’s a beautiful album, possibly let down a little by a voice that, let’s face it, hasn’t got the strength or capacity of K.D. Lang, but it’s a weakness that reflects a vulnerability, that lends itself so well to the tragic and plaintive songs of regret and intent, and the reflection of her past and her lost loves, and somehow she turns that weakness into a strength. Like a true alchemist she has dabbled in lore from the past and mixed up her concoctions cleverly to create a fragile watercolour world of gold and barbed nostalgia (like Lana Del Rey does so well).
She manages to pull you into her world with seemingly so little and with such subtlety that you don’t realise you are being led until you look around and notice that you’re not in Kansas anymore. You are lost in a David Lynch remake of Peyton Place, where the lesbian waitress dreams of acceptance into the world of Hockney swimming pools and Mad Men style duplex apartments, whilst overfilling your coffee and dropping ash onto your lap.
Fans of her work will probably already own most of this already, but for those of you who aren’t too familiar I would probably recommend you get All Mirrors instead. Whole New Mess is of interest as a comparison, containing as it does mostly earlier demo versions of the Mirrors album, and the extras mostly also appearing as b-sides etc, so unless you’re swayed by the lavishness of the box and accompanying booklet (and I have to admit I would be one of those!) stick with All Mirrors.
Song of The Lark and Other Far Memories is out now on Jagjaguwar. Find out more on her official website.
Review by Andrew Wood