In Review: Angel Olsen - Whole New Mess

The new, rough-around-the-edges release from Olsen provides the other side of the coin to 2019's All Mirrors.
Posted: 28 August 2020 Words: Anthony Harbin

After the release of last year’s lushly adorned and critically-adored All Mirrors, Angel Olsen releases her new album, Whole New Mess. Except, it’s not a new album as such, rather the initial version. When she started writing it she wanted to return to the sparser style of her earlier work, before ultimately furnishing the songs into the rich orchestral colossus that became All Mirrorsthose expecting the Half Way Home treatment may be disappointed, as this is anything but.

The tracklisting remains intact (albeit differently ordered) but for two new songs, in lieu of the axed ‘Spring’ and ‘Endgame’. So let’s start with the new. The album begins with the title track ‘Whole New Mess’, which sets the tone of the album with raw and desolate strumming – “I stretch my bones out on the floor” – it sits in stark contrast to the grand swell of original opener ‘Lark’.  ‘Waving, Smiling’ is a nod to her earliest material with its stark finger picking and tremulous wavering soprano, the one most likely to please fans of her earlier work. 

The album was recorded before in an old church with a haunted ‘Crying Room’ in the small island city of Anacortes, Washington. It lends itself to an eeriness that we haven’t heard in her voice for some time. Yet whilst the songs are sparser, with only guitar and some organ as accompaniment, there is a muscularity that isn’t present on the forlorn quietude of Strange Cacti or Half Way Home. For one the guitar is mostly amplified and reverb-laden, and her voice roams over all of the ground she has covered in the intervening years, at times breathy and waifish (‘Summer Song’), to the frank delivery of ‘Waving, Smiling’ to searching howls (Lark Song), like she is going from room to room sifting through the rubble of the past. 

The most interesting versions are the ones that were the powerhouses on the original album: ‘Lark Song’, ‘(We Are All Mirrors)’, ‘Impasse (Workin’ For The Name)’.  You can tell why they were eventually given the huge arrangements, as they remain the strongest forces, but here her voice is really allowed to bear its pain and cut through like a jagged knife. 

The two tracks that standout and gain the most from their undressing are ‘Chance (Forever Love)’, which aches with new clarity, and the loud-quiet of ‘What It Is (What It Is) with lines like, “You just wanted to forget, that your heart was full of shit” that land harder than they could have before. Perhaps this is why they were saved for last. 

The raw sound and quality of this record can at times make it feel like an album of demos, particularly as there is no consistent refined tone as on previous LP’s. However this was very much intentional, “I’m trying to embrace this part of myself that’s unpolished and not perfect” (NME, 2020). Break ups aren’t elegant and perfect, they’re messy and fraught. And yes, sometimes it can feel like you’re in some epic tragedy, but most of the time you just feel like you’re pacing a big, cold,  empty room trying to make sense of all that negative space. 

If All Mirrors was the film score to these events, then Whole New Mess is the reality. They exist in tandem as two sides of the same coin, as this is how emotion works, each with the power to disclaim the other. 

Whole New Mess is out today (Friday 28th August) via Jagjaguwar.

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