Angel Olsen – ‘Whole New Mess’ review: raw vulnerability, and kernels of hope

Most of these songs appeared in maximalist form on last year's acclaimed 'All Mirrors', but stripped-back versions reveal their true power

Most artists keep their demos to themselves, pulling them out of a dusty box in the attic only when someone at the label suggests they bolt them onto a flashy anniversary release or if the Record Store Day goodie box is looking a bit empty.

Angel Olsen, though, isn’t most artists. Before making her fourth album, 2019’s astounding ‘All Mirrors’, she escaped to a tiny studio in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest of America to work out a bunch of new songs alone, accompanied only by her guitar and the occasional trill of an organ. Raw and revelatory, the material picked apart a still fresh break-up and found Olsen in a deeply vulnerable state.

It was this that hammered in the foundations of ‘All Mirrors’, which saw Olsen building upon those songs with sweeping symphonics, creating a dramatic album of modern noir that garnered her best reviews yet, including a five star summation in NME. “The orchestral arrangements themselves are things of beauty,” we said of the record’s powerful production. “Olsen’s tales of heartbreak transport you to a slightly ramshackle old ballroom, gilded with streaks of ornate gold-leaf.”

If ‘All Mirrors’ took you to a lavish, creaky ballroom, then ‘Whole New Mess’ tucks you away in the cupboard under the stairs, the door slammed tightly shut. Olsen had always planned to release the original recordings of the ‘All Mirrors’ songs, but wanted the bolder, louder versions to come to her fans first. “I thought it would be more interesting to see something explosive, and then take a look back to where it started to do it the other way around,” she’s explained of her plans to flip the order in which the albums came out.

READ MORE: On the cover – Angel Olsen: “I’m just as lost as everybody else”

Now we’ve had almost a year to digest ‘All Mirrors’, here come the heart-worn originals, which see Olsen returning to the ragged, lo-fi feel of her early recordings, and with it a different kind of intimacy. Her first proper solo release since her 2012 debut ‘Half Way Home’ – with no backing band nor swish production – ‘Whole New Mess’ is the undiluted sound of Olsen not just baring her soul, but taking those first steps in figuring out how to feel better.

Rough and perfectly unpolished, against campfire strummed guitar ‘(We Are All Mirrors)’ exudes a crisp, almost sci-fi iciness, coming across as a primal, crunchy ballad, Olsen half-crying the devastating opening lines: “I’ve been watching all of my past repeating / There’s no ending.”

With the reverb cranked up – another return the melodramatic sound with which she made her name almost a decade ago – ‘Lark Song’ finds Olsen digging her way through desperation, grabbing onto the embers of a relationship that you know will burn you, but which you can’t help reaching for anyway, as she croons: “To forget you is to hide, there’s still so much left to recover / If only we could start again, pretending we don’t know each other.”

‘(Summer Song)’ is even more stark, stripped off all unnecessary fluff as Olsen’s usually strident vocal quavers when she admits, “I lost my soul / Was just a shell”. The became the groove-driven ‘Summer’ on ‘All Mirrors’, boasting propulsive drums and 1980s synth lines that make her seem if not quite over the pain, then certainly well on the road to recovery. The arch ‘All Mirrors’ version of ‘New Love Cassette’, too, plugs into a retro electro sound that seems to somewhat separate the singer from the song, while the version here, ‘(New Love) Cassette’, seems that much more true. When Olsen flips into a falsetto after singing “I’m gonna show you love all of the time / Gonna be your breath when you’re out of life”, the only thing to do is believe her.

‘Whole New Mess’ also features two songs not on ‘All Mirrors’. The downbeat title track, Olsen recently told NME, is about “drug addiction, being addicted to alcohol, being on tour, not taking care of yourself”. Not quite the perky counterpoint to the rest of the record’s deep sorrow, it dives headfirst into grief and again sees Olsen processing pain rather than coming up with answers.

‘Waving, Smiling’, also getting its first outing, is perhaps the purest composition here, a finger-picked, classic-sounding country ballad that comes on like Patsy Cline at her most resigned: “I’ve made my bed,” shrugs Olsen, knowing that while the good times aren’t quite right ahead, they’re definitely out there somewhere in the distance.


Release date: August 28

Record label: Jagjaguwar

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