IN CONCERT: Angel Olsen’s Mirror-Erasing Magic

What Angel’s self-actualized songs taught me about being a true partner

Angel Olsen / Photo by Justin D. Joffe

Angel Olsen’s songwriting has long explored the power of self-reliance as a means of survival. There was a paradox to unpack, then, when her music also turned out to play such a pivotal role in dating, proposing to, and ultimately marrying my partner.

As Angel closed out three sold-out nights in support of her grandiose avant-pop masterwork, All Mirrors, last Saturday at Brooklyn Steel, she also brought with her the existential questions embedded in the new album’s many gems. The last time Hannah and I saw Angel in 2017, I’d proposed an hour before. Last weekend, almost two years later to the day, Angel’s performance reminded both of us us why the way that we exist in relation to others is largely dictated by how we exist with ourselves.

Hannah and I hadn’t yet met the first time that I saw Angel perform at Le Poisson Rouge in February, 2014. Angel just released her breakthrough sophomore LP, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, and had the first of what would become many sold-out rooms in the city transfixed.

She sang the Cohen-esque dirge, “White Fire”, at that show—a powerful tune with lyrics that gave her then-new album its name:

 

If you’ve still got some light in you then go before it’s gone                                 

Burn your fire for no witness, it’s the only way it’s done Fierce and light and young                                                                                                      Hit the ground and run

Angel Olsen / Photo by Justin D. Joffe

These words immediately landed with an instructional resonance: make the most of your gifts and cultivate them for yourself alone—not anyone else. Don’t just keep moving, but run to get there. Though I’d understood what Angel was singing about on a surface level, I didn’t yet understand how the words could crystallize into anything else than an endorsement of solitude. Hannah and I met that summer.

When Angel released her third LP, My Woman, the lazy journalist shorthand typecasting her music as that of a waif-like “sad girl” no longer flew. Longing, though still present in her writing and her voice, was now bolstered by a these massive epic odes to the self on the album’s back-half including “Heart Shaped Face,” “Sister” and “Woman.” The humble beginnings of these tunes evolved into thunderous declarations that echoed the unordained sonic grandeur of Neil and Crazy Horse. Angel toured that record with her band clad in bolo ties, laughingly playing off any projected alt-country assumptions around where her sound might be heading.

Hannah and I first saw Angel together during the Pop Montreal festival in September 2016 at the Théâtre Rialto , and it was one of the worst dates we’d ever had. I was covering the festival on assignment for The Observer, but there was no photo pit, and I was stuck in the general admission section with all of my lenses amidst an oversold crowd of Quebecois teens. 

Hannah didn’t want to be cramped, so we argued about how to proceed, and she opted to sit alone in the balcony. By the time I rejoined her, apologetic for how we’d left things, Angel and her band kicked into “Heart Shaped Face” as Hannah and I both held each other and sobbed like little kids. Angel sang:

 

I’ve seen you changing

I’ve seen you aging

And I learned how to turn my head

And I learned how to walk away

And the truth never really lives

In the story of words we say

 

It was a bittersweet night that ended well, but the unnecessary conflict that started the evening made it far from a pure experience—highlighting my stubbornness, Hannah’s stress amongst crowds, our co-dependencies, you name it.

Sitting with Hannah’s childhood friend Kim in late summer, 2017, I told her that planned on asking Hannah to marry me, and asked Kim for advice on how I should pop the question. “Take her to a show,” she said. “You both love music so much.” 

Angel Olsen on guitar / Photo by Justin D. Joffe

A little more than a year later, in November, Angel came back to New York’s Town Hall, and made sure we were there. I proposed at a prix-fixe, pre-theatre dinner a block away. Hannah could tell that I was nervous, and thought it was strange that I didn’t want to take advantage of the free coat check and instead opted to hang my coat on the back of my chair at such a fancy restaurant (the ring box was in there).

The tears we shed at this Angel performance were much happier, tastier, full of promise and new commitments. Angel came back onstage for her encore wearing a wig of silver tinsel, and played Velvet Underground’s goofy, sentimental ballad, “I Found a Reason” in which Lou Reed seems to be living solely for another person, but ultimately takes agency over their own power in the relationship.  We decided it would be our wedding song.

Angel Olsen and band / Photo by Justin D. Joffe

Fast-forward to last Saturday, the third and final night of Angel’s sold out Brooklyn run in support of All Mirrors. Clad in black and fronting a new, seven-piece band that featured a violinist and cellist fleshing out the new album’s swelling, synthetized tunes, Angel’s performance hit like a gorgeously cathartic goth prom. Is drawing a comparison to a Kate Bush level of grandeur reductive? The theatrical pull of the backdrop and beaded silver hangings adorning the stage were only further accented by Angel’s cool, commanding voice—piercing through every texture and playing off the stark staging of darkness and light.

It’s easy to consider her lush performance of All Mirrors’ title track, and its earworm proclamation, “Standing, facing, all mirrors are erasing” from the context of a codependent relationship. In those situations, “mirroring” refers to the tendency of partners to copy each other’s behaviors, mannerisms and sometimes even psychoses to maintain some level of normality and consistency in the relationship. The problem arises when, much like literal mirrors, those reflections become  projections, an aesthetic facade that the other person embraces in order to mask what they are truly feeling. 

Angel has said in interviews that the album’s orchestral, bombastic opening track, “Lark,” was written while navigating a verbally abusive relationship and is about the lessons learned from an argument about trust and support. Performed live early on in the evening to a strobe-infused, noise-filled climax, Angel laughed off the power of her performance, saying she wanted to get the angry song out of the way early. Then she busted out “Spring,” a song about how one’s priorities about family and commitment change with age. 

Angel Olsen at the piano / Photo by Justin F. Joffe

“I looked around at some of my friends that are getting married and having kids and how we used to be when we were in our early twenties, saying, ‘I’m never going to live in the suburbs, I’m never going to own a house, I’m going to sleep on floors on tours for life,’” Angel told Apple Music about “Spring.” 

“But then eventually life happens to you and your values change and suddenly you have a child in your arms. And how beautiful that is and how unashamed you are when you feel that feeling and how, actually, it starts to make more sense why people want community and family.”

In this interview, and others, Angel has hammered home the idea that the All Mirrors song cycle is about making peace with yourself, for yourself, and not in the interest of finding something new. She posted an Instagram photo of her wearing a wedding dress, wryly proclaiming that she was marrying herself. She quipped onstage that she isn’t dating, before adding that she will again some day only if the right guy comes along. 

Similarly, Angel has set no expectation that the big ideas about self-actualization she continues to artfully explore on All Mirrors are for anyone but herself. The fact that we all have latched on to her gifts, and continue to feel drawn to her powers, makes this dynamic between artist and listener a truly egalitarian relationship—not one reliant on external praise, hollow validation or any other such unhealthy mirrors. 

That’s something Hannah and I continue to strive for, too. Dancing at the back and giggling as Angel and her band jokingly busted out a half-baked cover of “Amber” by 311, it became clear that we’d  learned to work through the stress we can both feel in crowded public places and let everything else melt away—no longer mirroring each other’s anxieties, but instead our spirit of adventure, fun and excitement. Our journey continues with the reminder to stay mindful and not mirror each other’s vulnerabilities or reflect each other’s fires, but rather to light our own and bask in the glow emitted when they fuse together to burn as one.  

 

VIDEO: Angel Olsen performs “I Found A Reason”

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Justin Joffe

Justin Joffe writes about music, art, technology, and other cultural treasures. Reach him on Twitter @joffaloff.

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