It’s right there in the title of 2014's Burn Your Fire for No Witness. And it’s in “Unfucktheworld,” that album's opening track, when she intones “I am the only one now” three times over, then switches to repeating “You may not be around,” then returns to “I am the only one now.” There it is, the burgeoning sense of self that will later shape this year’s All Mirrors. There it is, the fear that her selfhood may one day no longer be shaped in part by another person, that her status as one-half of a shared whole may not last forever. And there it is: the possibility that the fire, however brightly or dimly it burns, may be hers alone in the end.
Viewed through the refractions of All Mirrors, her most cinematic, sweeping and string-heavy rock record to date, it isn’t difficult to draw a narrative thread. Olsen never directly stated that Burn Your Fire for No Witness or its followup, 2016’s MY WOMAN, was about herself or her life; All Mirrors marks the first time she’s saying outright that these stories are hers alone. But this is also the first record she made for herself alone.
“In the beginning, it was all about making sure I made the records everybody loved,” Olsen says. “[All Mirrors] was like, this is something I have to do whether or not people like it, you know what I mean?”
To her credit, people did love those records. If Burn Your Fire for No Witness was the jab, then MY WOMAN was the haymaker, a one-two breakout punch buoyed by the success of singles “Intern,” a slow-burning synth-pop wonder, and neatly wrapped guitar-pop gem “Shut Up Kiss Me.”
But it was MY WOMAN, in particular, that enshrined Olsen as a critical darling and a singular figure in indie rock, her stature and the attendant reverence (and magazine covers and Spotify-curated pop-up events and features on Mark Ronson records) now comparable to that of artists like Mitski, St. Vincent or Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker. And Olsen’s star had only risen by the time All Mirrors arrived: There she was, discussing the merits of Enya with Zane Lowe and looming over Times Square, literally larger than life.
The first album that Olsen willingly and publicly claims as entirely her own has only catapulted her further into mass adulation, an amusing development given that it's also the album on which she seeks to abandon narcissism, self-delusion and false if comforting narratives. The very nature of music marketing demands that her art, her brand, her identity is the product itself. Despite the depth of what Angel Olsen, human person and living artist, is contending with on the record, it's that same record that is expanding Angel Olsen, the brand.
“With each record, you have to promote yourself in this way as though you are the most important thing that ever happened,” she says. “At the same time, you’re promoting a lot of the work that you care about, that you put your heart into, but you also feel weird doing it, and you can get lost in it, doing all these photo shoots, et cetera. Each time, I have to make sure not to get lost in it.”
All Mirrors, however gorgeous it may be, is the stuff of cold, hard self-confrontation; Olsen describes it as reflective of her Saturn return, an astrological planetary transit that occurs in a person’s late twenties and brings massive personal change and tough lessons. Among those changes were the breakup she cracks open on uncontainable album opener “Lark”; many of those lessons were delivered by way of a solo tour she embarked on last year.
“I got to the point where I was like, less people for a tour would be good for right now,” she says. “Like, maybe I can see if there’s an audience for this older material, spend some time thinking about the longevity of my career and how I want to approach it.”
It worked in more ways than one. She bought a house in Asheville and a cat — domestic milestones she always imagined reaching with a partner. “I felt like I needed to do them with someone for so long. I don’t know if it’s because my parents are older, so I just thought of things in a really traditional way. Now I’m like, ‘I can do this stuff alone. This is sick,'” she says. “It’s nice to have companionship, and I hope that I do eventually. But I also just love having made my work and looked at what it’s done for my life and seen what I can do as an independent person.”
Angel Olsen, with Vagabon, plays Saturday, December 14, and Sunday, December 15, at the Gothic Theatre, 3263 South Broadway in Englewood. Tickets are $35.75-$40 and available at gothictheatre.com.
Hear Angel Olsen and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.