Angel Olsen’s Whole New Mess showcases the skeletal recordings that led to 2019’s All Mirrors | Music Review | Chicago Reader

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Angel Olsen’s Whole New Mess showcases the skeletal recordings that led to 2019’s All Mirrors

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On her new fifth album, Whole New Mess, Angel Olsen presents skeletal renditions of songs from her 2019 LP All Mirrors, filtering their themes of love, broken promises, and recovery through a stark, isolationist lens of a woman armed with only her guitars. While the record’s release date comes nearly a year after All Mirrors, the singer-songwriter actually recorded it first, in an October 2018 session at the Unknown, a church-turned-recording studio in Anacortes, Washington, a small seaside town on Fidalgo Island. In stark contrast to the brooding, synth-laden production of its predecessor, Whole New Mess opts for stripped-down, haunting melancholy. However, it’s anything but a collection of demos. Olsen started sketching the songs at her home in North Carolina, before deciding that she needed a space with limited distractions to fully realize her visions; the Unknown turned out to be the perfect environment for the task. Along with the nine tunes she revamped for All Mirrors, the record includes two previously unreleased songs, including the title track. Olsen has always used the nuances of her voice to underline varying degrees of frustration, despair, and longing, but on Whole New Mess she showcases its raw power in new ways, playing with volume, space, and her unforced vocal quiver—all of which converge on a stellar take of “Too Easy (Bigger Than Us).” On tracks such as “(Summer Song)” and “Waving, Smiling,” Olsen’s singing is just loud enough to be heard, which emphasizes the solitary nature of her recording process. But finding contentment and inspiration doesn’t completely negate cravings for connection. Her near wailing on “Chance (Forever Love)” sounds as if she’s calling out for someone to join her who never comes. Some versions of the songs Olsen revisited on Whole New Mess, including “Tonight (Without You)” and “Lark Song,” feature slightly expanded, borderline stream-of-consciousness lyrics that can feel like coded messages to past lovers and fellow survivors of troubled relationships (Olsen has described some of the material on All Mirrors as a response to verbal abuse she’s endured). The seductive “(New Love) Cassette” comes across even moodier after Olsen whittles down the slow burn of the original to the imperfect strum of her guitar strings, while “Impasse (Workin’ for the Name)” swirls in fuzzy echoes of her airy coo. While All Mirrors is gripping in its orchestral conspiracies and chilly sleekness, it sometimes feels like the stories at its heart are meant to be buried; Whole New Mess leaves them few places to hide. People often take remote, minimalist getaways to inspire personal decluttering on mental, physical, and emotional levels, and by the end of the album, it seems as if Olsen has indeed returned to herself, musically and spiritually. “And knowing that you love someone doesn’t mean you ever were in love,” she sings over simple acoustic guitar on “What It Is.” That can be a hard truth to swallow after a relationship ends, but Olsen sounds as though she’s fully accepted it, and in turn she’s become gleeful, or even free.   v

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