Angel Olsen, “Whole New Mess”

Angel Olsen
Whole New Mess
JAGJAGUWAR
7/10

For all its darkness, All Mirrors, Angel Olsen’s fourth album, is a widescreen, neon-lit tour-de-force, vibrant and cinematic in scope even when at its bleakest. It was released last fall, lush with orchestral pomp and stunning, uninhibited vocals. Olsen’s music was always supercharged with emotion, but All Mirrors reels it all into focus and splashes it with technicolor.

But the imposing grandiosity of All Mirrors was never a given. The recording sessions began in October 2018 when Olsen decamped to The Unknown, a Catholic church-turned-recording studio in Washington converted by Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum. She worked there for ten days, recording the skeleton of what would ultimately become All Mirrors.

Whole New Mess is the result of those recording sessions, an origin story for an album that somehow both deserves one and doesn’t really need one. It rips the sheen and pageantry away from All Mirrors’ songs to reveal music so raw and sparse you feel as if you’re pressing your ear up against the closet it’s being recorded in.

In a time of isolation, there’s an unmistakable resonance in Olsen stripping everything back to its very barest. But it doesn’t always suit the songs. There are at least a few tracks where the bigness is an inextricable feature; hearing them, this bareness sort of whizzes past the point, like watching Lawrence of Arabia on your Apple Watch. “Lark Song” comes to mind; “Lark,” the Mirrors version of the track, blindsides you with its orchestral underpinnings and dramatic climactic flourishes, while the alternative version feels like it’s building to a liftoff that never arrives.

Other songs, though, improve upon their predecessors, or at least fight to a draw. “Too Easy (Bigger Than Us)” is an interesting example; the All Mirrors version ambles with an almost danceable strut, whereas this one feels frozen in mid-air, calling to mind Radiohead’s twin versions of “Morning Bell.” “What It Is (What It Is)” is the closest thing the album comes to sunny pop, revealing an interpretation just as charming as the original. “(New Love) Cassette” and “(Summer Song)” both have a searing desperation that lends them a new sort of emotional weight.

The highlights of Whole New Mess are the two songs we’ve never heard before: “Whole New Mess” and “Waving, Smiling,” both of which resurrect the aching blues of Olsen’s breakthrough moments. They’re a reminder of just how indispensable Olsen’s talent can be. The rest of Whole New Mess is less resounding in its success; it largely works because these songs are still very good at their core. But the album is constantly straddling the line between compelling standalone statement and disposable curiosity.

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