The mere fact that Whole New Mess exists is interesting. Little more than a year before its release, Angel Olsen had released All Mirrors and I reviewed it here on Picky Bastards. It was her most expansive work yet. I praised it at the time but did raise some concerns about the direction she was going in – concerns that have, a year later, almost totally disappeared. Even with those concerns at the time, though, I made a point of how Olsen is always looking forward, always evolving, always wanting to move onto a new and exciting project, a change of sound. And then she released Whole New Mess. Olsen is among the artists that get an immediate vinyl pre-order from me. I trust her to deliver. So I didn’t bother looking at any of the press releases or marketing info and simply shed my cash in expectation of another fascinating and fresh piece of work. This album isn’t entirely fresh. After a totally new, and totally amazing, title song kicks us off I was taken aback to hear that the second track ‘Too Easy (Bigger Than Us)’ was a stripped back version of ‘Too Easy’ from last year’s album.
It quickly became apparent that, other than ‘Whole New Mess’ and ‘Waving, Smiling’, this album is made up entirely of reworkings of the songs from All Mirrors. While that album had been one of the lushest, most expansive sounding albums I heard in 2019, with dramatic strings and diva-esque vocals, layer upon layer of captivating instrumentation and harmonies aplenty, this album was simply Angel Olsen and a guitar. It was a shock to the senses. Not only was this always evolving artist returning to old songs, but she was also returning to the set up that originally made me fall in love with her music on her 2012 debut Half Way Home. Not since then had we seen an album that was just her and her primary instrument.
So what was this all about? My initial feelings on the album were confusion. I couldn’t get my head around why she had decided to do this, and reading the press releases about ‘processing a difficult relationship’ didn’t do an awful lot to clear that up for me. So I decided to stop reading them. Instead, I played the album repeatedly until I felt able to separate the songs from their original format and appreciate them for what they had become. The result? Probably my favourite Angel Olsen project so far.
I have absolutely loved watching her evolve as an artist, switching styles and personas and growing in confidence. Each album has been superb. But on Whole New Mess she somehow manages to combine the things that made each of the other albums so special in their own right. As a huge folk fan, I loved the simpler stylings of Half Way Home and Burn Your Fire For No Witness, but was then totally blown away when she released a folk-pop masterpiece in the shape of My Woman. The confidence in her ability totally shone on that album, and began to be integral to her stage persona too.
Then, on All Mirrors, her vocal performance seemed to have gone up by six of seven notches. On Whole New Mess she retains that confidence and that vocal power, but adds an intense amount of vulnerability by performing in that way over simple guitar lines. It is really quite amazing to see her do this. My favourite songs on last year’s album were ‘Lark’, ‘All Mirrors’, and ‘New Love Cassette’ and that remains the case here. But what is so impressive is how, using just her voice, Olsen manages to make ‘(We Are All Mirrors)’ and ‘Lark Song’ feel as dramatic and involving as they did with an orchestra. I don’t know how she does it. And the songs that didn’t totally work for me on All Mirrors – ‘Too Easy’ and ‘Spring’ – are so much more affecting in their new guises.
I am still not sure how or why Olsen did this, but I am really glad that she did. And as much as this might leave some people to question whether she is still that always changing artist that so many people admire, I actually think it proves unequivocally that she is. Who else would take the gamble of putting out an album of songs released just a year before and market it as a whole new project? And in looking back and evolving earlier work, she has actually moved forward in terms of showing herself to be a brave, exciting, and daring artist. She just moved into the very top-tier.
Words by Fran Slater
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