Whole New Mess

Angel Olsen

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Whole New Mess Review

by Marcy Donelson

An album that close followers of Angel Olsen's career likely expected, Whole New Mess presents earlier versions of songs from 2019's All Mirrors, from before they were orchestrated for a 14-piece chamber ensemble and re-recorded. At the time of All Mirrors' release, the singer/songwriter was open about having originally conceived it as a double album. Far surpassing the status of "demos collection," the fittingly titled Whole New Mess is a spare, aching solo effort -- Olsen's first since 2012's Half Way Home -- that completely recontextualizes nine of All Mirrors' heavy-hearted songs. Also resequencing and altering the titles of the tracks, it swaps out the remaining two ("Spring" and "Endgame") for two originals. It was recorded in late October 2018 with engineer Michael Harris at the Unknown, a seaside Catholic church turned recording studio in Washington State established by Mount Eerie's Phil Elverum and producer Nicholas Wilbur. The resulting work is less like Gus Van Sant's nearly shot-for-shot update of Hitchcock's Psycho and more like if John Cassavetes had originally directed Titanic. The original song "Whole New Mess" opens the album with a weary, howling rumination about efforts to get back on track, set to rhythmic strumming. The character of the recording is as if someone in the pews captured a miked singer and amp setup at the altar. The rest of the album continues in kind, with Olsen's dramatically nuanced vocal performances at least bordering on spellbinding throughout. Appearing midway through the track list, the other original song, "Waving, Smiling," is a minimalist guitar waltz that mourns a forever that didn't last. Arguably the most devastating entry here is her solo "Chance (Forever Love)," a song whose sibling closed All Mirrors but which serves as Whole New Mess' penultimate track. Its leaping melody and, this time, acoustic arpeggiated triplets become more and more haunted over the course of the song as the echo becomes more pronounced. Whole New Mess wraps with the comparatively jaunty "What It Is (What It Is)," an All Mirrors chamber rock song that reveals itself to be a classic folk-pop round at heart. It leaves listeners with an implied shrug and lingering stare. Managing to be uniquely stylized and engrossing while stripped bare, Whole New Mess not only works in isolation, it deserves equal footing in Olsen's discography.

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