Angel Olsen Is At The Heart Of The Sparse ‘Whole New Mess”

I enjoyed Angel Olsen’s 2019 album All Mirrors. I liked it more as a live music experience with a bunch of showmanship, but just sitting to it and listening to it the album was good. At times it felt a bit overtheatrical and overproduced, delving into torch song territory that felt a little out of place in her discography, even if she has the voice to largely make it work. Now, Olsen already has a new album out in 2020. Well, it’s actually older than All Mirrors, and it is basically a spiritual predecessor to All Mirrors, but it is new to our ears. It’s also playing to all of Olsen’s strengths as a musician.

The album, entitled Whole New Mess, was recorded by Olsen in a church over 10 days in 2018. The environment was chosen for the sound it would engender, and the songs basically rest entirely on Olsen’s voice and contemplative instrumentation. This is a smaller album, lacking the bombast of All Mirrors. That allows me as a listener to focus more on her voice and her lyrics which are, to me, what draws me to her music.

A lot of the songs on Whole New Mess were reworked into songs for All Mirrors. That’s very clear when you listen to it. Lyrically it shares much of the same content, and the song construction feels similar, if seriously pared down. However, on many of the songs the lyrics struck me in a way they did not in the immensity of All Mirrors. That album kind of washed over me a bit, though I liked it. Whole New Mess reverberates more. Olsen’s voice cuts through you, and the lyrics are front and center. There are a couple of new songs on the album that weren’t included on All Mirrors, including the titular Whole New Mess. I wrote about that song previously, but it remains a fantastic and gripping song. It’s basically impossible not to be emotionally impacted by hearing it. I believe “Waving, Smiling” is also a fresh listen, and if it is not I apologize. Either way it’s a really good song.

All Mirrors finished in the middle of my ranking of the top 25 albums of 2019. Whole New Mess will be making the 2020 list and finishing higher. I admire Olsen taking a different route for All Mirrors and I hope it was a worthwhile and uplifting experience. To me, though, Whole New Mess in all its stripped-down beauty is more up my alley. This is what I hope for when I hear that Angel Olsen has new music. Even when it’s not entirely “new” music.

About Chris Morgan

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