Back in 2014, Angel Olsen performed in Manchester for the first time. The tiny, dishevelled basement of the Soup Kitchen was the venue that evening; the room was full and there was a stark grunginess to Angel’s sombre performance, which was intense, hypnotic and all too brief. Fast forward six years and this approach has been refined into something approaching a gothic opulence.
As if to enhance this notion, Angel and her band emerge from the shadows, taking their places in front of a grand, medieval staircase backdrop. The darkness and smoke dissolves and the distinctive synth tones of ‘All Mirrors’ cuts through the haze. The new record is a significant shift in direction compared to 2016’s My Woman. To some, it’s taken a bit of getting used to; dramatic strings and striking synth currents course through the album, replacing Angel’s more lo-fi origins. She’s ensured that the ambitious scale of the new record is realised this evening by including a string section along with additional keys. The impact of this presentation is utterly immersive and for anyone with misgivings about the shift in direction, it all makes perfect sense now; that dramatic intensity of six years ago has morphed into something that is grand but on a darkly nebulous scale. ‘Spring’ follows, adding a carnival-esque Supertramp vibe to proceedings and the sold-out crowd in Manchester are entranced.
For ‘Impasse’ the lights become a thick red shroud. It’s probably one of the more lugubrious moments on the new record and Angel, now standing, delivers a hair-raising, savage demonstration of the creative maturity that All Mirrors exhibits throughout. The multi-layered ‘Lark’ follows; full of dramatic peaks and tender gullies which become almost nightmarish as swooning strings morph into Hitchcockian stabs at the song’s pinnacle. It would be as spiky as a hand grenade if it wasn’t so awe-inspiring. There’s something vaguely 80s about ‘Summer’ but this more buoyant approach is replaced by the funereal ‘Tonight’.
So far then, the focus has been on the new record and the presentation of these new songs has been an arousing reinvention for Angel Olsen. It’s worth remembering though that My Woman was one of the highlights of 2016 and the record’s best song reminds us why. ‘Sister’ manages to roll all of the best lo-fi elements that Angel Olsen initially emerged with and develops them into a complex concoction of gothic Americana that concludes with a rattling guitar solo, thrilling the appreciative crowd. The grungy guitar motifs are retained for ‘Sweet Dreams’, which pays homage to the psychedelic acid rock of Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’, amongst others.
Next up is an entertainingly choreographed moment of improv as the band refuse to play the ‘new’ song which Angel has just written for this evening. Angel’s guitarist refuses to play it and even walks off the stage before she tells him what the chords are. Eventually they forge ahead and the arrangement morphs into the iconic ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ to everyone’s clear delight. The song’s belligerent form is maintained on ‘Forgiven/Forgotten’ and although there has been a clear divide between the old and the new this evening, Angel re-emerges for the cinematic melodrama of ‘Chance’ for the encore, further reinforcing the impression that this evening has been a real coming of age.
Words & Images by Iain Fox