If you think you’ve heard it all before, you’re almost right. 9 of the 11 songs on Angel Olsen’s new album, ‘Whole New Mess’ appeared on her last album, ‘All Mirrors’. You haven’t heard them like this, though.
Recorded at The Unknown, a Catholic church in Anacortes, Washington; “Whole New Mess” is Olsen’s first true solo album since her 2012 debut, ‘Half Way Home’. However, ‘Whole New Mess’ is not ‘All Mirrors: The Demo Sessions’. Lark, Summer and Chance all appear in minimal form. But if “All Mirrors” was the sound of Olsen coming to terms with heartbreak and loss, “Whole New Mess” is the sound of her making sense of the world she is left with in its wake.
The results are stunning, charmingly frank and ominously intimate. Opening with its title-track – one of two “new” songs – its a bare assessment of Olsen’s rock bottom and difficult recovery. “Oh, I’ll really do the change”, she echoes at the beginning and end, her voice quivering as if she’s trying to convince herself.
(We Are All Mirrors) sees the title track of her last album stripped of its strings and synths, reduced to a humdrum guitar strum. The only other support for Olsen’s half-cry comes from two sky-piercing notes that reverberate towards the songs finish. Lark Song, laid bare here, only amplifies the desperation in Olsen’s wailing refrain “Hanging out inside my head, it’s me again, it’s no surprise I’m on my own now”.
Waving, Smiling – another debutante – shows Olsen at her purest. An alternative country ballad; it’s about acceptance, despite the bittersweet closure that comes with it. Over finger picked guitar, she sings “I’ve made my bed, made up of all my fears / All my fears cried out all of those years / Cried out all of those years / Now baby I’m lying / Laid out and smiling.” The old cliche “’it’s better to have loved and lost” is more believable when Olsen sings it.
These stripped-back arrangements reveal the power and raw vulnerability of Olsen’s voice and words. She makes the familiar sound brand new. More direct than its predecessor, “Whole New Mess” deserves to be judged as its own album and as an equal among the body of work Olsen has crafted to date.