Album Review: Angel Olsen – “Whole New Mess”

Posted: by The Editor

In the last few years it has become notably more common for artists to experiment with the traditional two-year album cycle. Just last fall, indie folk superstar Angel Olsen released All Mirrors, a seismic shift in her sound. It was dramatic, full of strings and synths that interrelated to create something illustrious. Alongside the announcement of Mirrors came the news that Olsen would release a companion album. These songs were explicitly not demos, but the skeletal framework of what became the cinematic wonder of All Mirrors.

Recorded in Phil Elverum’s studio in Anacortes, Washington, the songs that comprise Whole New Mess feel as rustic and gothic as where they came to be. The album’s press bio tells a story of Olsen and the crew screening the 2013 horror film The Conjuring on a day off. It’s both likely a thing that happened, as much as it is something to help set the mood for how one perceives the songs themselves. 

They’re spectral, recorded in so that there isn’t much instrumentation crowding Olsen’s powerful voice, though there are many effects applied to that voice. With the warmth and reverb applied, if Olsen’s performance was a roll of film, then the affections read like a lens flare. They crowd the bigger picture, but in a way that makes it more unique. 

For those who latched on to the grandeur of All Mirrors, many moments on Whole New Mess can feel both familiar and alien. While the structures aren’t that different, the songs that were never that dressed up are the ones that translate best. “Summer” from Mirrors was one such track that never clicked much with me, but truly shines in its original form. Found here as “(Summer Song),” its production isn’t just warm, but somehow humid. Similarly, the closer “Chance,” a sweeping ballad festooned with orchestral strings that made it feel like something that’s existed since the 40s is just as stirring when scaled back.

As for the songs that were turned into glimmering pieces of sci-fi operatics, it’s a little unfair to show us their underdressed origins and expect them to hold up as well. By no means is “(We Are All Mirrors)” a bad song, but when you already know where it can go, it’s hard to appreciate its simplicity. It’s rougher production is interesting, especially as Olsen’s voice shoots upwards, but it never hits the highs we know it can.

One song, Mirrors sole piano based piece, “Spring” does not appear on Mess. In its place, we’re treated to two “new” songs. That is to say, two of the oldest songs written during these sessions. The title track, “Whole New Mess”  is a pensive embrace of chaos. The other new cut “Waving, Smiling” is a minimally touched up waltz, and quite lovely. They do a nice job in tandem of breaking up the feeling that you’ve heard this before. 

It is frankly impossible to not think about Whole New Mess in comparative terms; to think that were it not for a few production choices, this would be little more than a demos and B-sides collection. It’s a testament to the overwhelming talent of Olsen that the songs are good enough to stand on their own, for the most part, no matter what she does with them. 

Disappointing / Average/ Good / Great / Phenomenal

Eric Bennett | @seething_coast

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