Whole New Mess
As Angel Olsen’s popularity soars, there’s no doubt her expanding musical palette, which now includes sweeping electronic textures and gauzy atmospherics, is working for her. But there’s also no doubt some fans miss her solo guitar beginnings. For those fans, her latest release, Whole New Mess, comes as a much-treasured time capsule.
Olsen recorded WNM over 10 days in October 2018 at The Unknown, better known as Phil Elverum and Nicholas Wilbur‘s converted church studio in Anecortes. The sessions followed a major breakup, one that cost her friendships, yet she describes that particular period in the small Washington town a relaxed and fun one, spent mostly with her friend, recording engineer Michael Harris.
She would later take these songs to her band and dress them up as her remarkable 2019 album, All Mirrors. But WNM looks backwards to nine of the eleven songs on All Mirrors, under their working titles, the same way we look back at our selves from past relationships; even though they are the original versions, they play like reinterpretations of the past, the way we reinterpret our pasts. With time, those original versions grow in ways that might be unpredictable. At the same time, the Angel Olsen looking back is not be the same person who wrote them. But maybe in looking back, there’s a consistency between the originals and the furbished versions found on All Mirrors, a fundamental truth that underlies those songs.
All Mirrors gets its power from its immense, sweeping presence. The entire album moves like a massive gale. But sometimes the slate of synthesizers and electronics buries her voice, creating distance between her and the listener. The stripped versions have a whole different power, one that places the listener face-to-face with her.
WNM returns longtime fans to the small venues where her unequaled voice shook the walls to near collapse. Those were the rooms where almost the entire audience sat on the floor, mouths agape but in total silence as they absorbed every whispered, galloping, quaking sound that emanated from hers. Shorn of distractions and adornments, it becomes easier for the listener to feel closer to her lyrics. Especially because her vocals are clearer.
Most often, both the All Mirrors and WNM versions impress. The gossamer pop march “Too Easy” is reduced to a more haunted plod on “Too Easy (Bigger Than Us)”. As two of the songs that obscured her voice the most, “All Mirrors” and “Lark” benefit the most as “(We Are All Mirrors)” and “Lark Song.” “Chance” is still achingly beautiful when its piano and strings are replaced by tender finger-picked guitar on “Chance (Forever Love).” “Summer” could fit on one of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ glammy later albums, but as “(Summer Song),” it conjures an image of Olsen performing the song while illuminated by a single candle.
But then there are the songs that don’t work as well dressed down. Without its dramatic flourishes of strings and its beat that swirls like water in draining in a partially clogged sink, not much happens in “(New Love) Cassette.” “Tonight” and “Tonight (Without You)” both move at the same tempo – still life still – but the atmospheric touches on the former add a beauty the latter fails to compensate for. “Impasse (Working For the Name)” doesn’t plunge listeners into depths as vast as the expansive “Impasse” does.
WNM also includes two songs that aren’t on All Mirrors. On the title-track, which opens the album, she vows to “Make a whole new mess again / Celebrate the best again” after she gets clears her head and get back on track. The slowly finger-picked, country-esque “Waving, Smiling” is classic Angel, pulling focus onto her acrobatic vocal performance as she sings about dealing with her fears.
The past can be messy, ugly, and different than how we remember it. But Whole New Mess proves it can also be worth looking back anyway, And sometimes, like the original versions of the nine All Mirrors songs, the past can be more illuminating and beautiful than the present. But it’s ultimately for the best that Angel Olsen keeps pushing her music forward with an album as ambitious as All Mirrors. Let’s hope she continues to do so while keeping her past in perspective.
review by Leslie Chu