Album Review: Angel Olsen – Whole New Mess

[Jagjaguwar; 2020]

Over the past decade, Angel Olsen has enjoyed quite a meteoric rise in the indie world, both in terms of her audience and the scope of her sound. She first turned heads as one of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s harmonizing partners on his underrated Wolfroy Goes to Town back in 2011, following up with the warm, homespun folk of her debut LP Half Way Home in 2012. She garnered acclaim for her intriguing lyricism and her even-more intriguing voice, equal parts powerful warble and piercing laser-focused instrument. 

This acclaim only grew over her next few releases. The more garage rock-influenced Burn Your Fire For No Witness and the polished pop rock of 2017’s My Woman ended up on numerous Top 10 lists in their respective years. 2019’s All Mirrors saw yet another shift for Olsen: it was her first album with the help of big, sweeping string arrangements, often inhabiting as much a starring role as Olsen’s own voice. Songs like “Lark” and the title track were darkly dramatic, sounding larger and more overwhelming than anything Olsen had yet produced. Unfortunately, overall, the album felt like it had lost a little bit of the luster inherent to much of her songwriting, as though the ornate arrangements were bolstering up thinner-than-usual songs; the epic standing in for the quality.

Regrettably, that is made even clearer on Olsen’s fifth album, Whole New Mess. From the very beginning, Olsen had stated that All Mirrors began as a very stripped-back solo album – just her and some guitars. Somewhere along the way, it became the grandiose statement we all heard last year, but she still felt keen to release these solitary versions, which brings us to this new album. 

Nine of the 11 songs on Whole New Mess are tracks that appear on All Mirrors, with two – the title track and “Waving, Smiling” – being brand new. The new songs were both released as singles leading up to the album, and they paint a pretty accurate picture of what to expect: austere, sparse, reverb-heavy music, buoyed only by Olsen’s powerful voice and her gentle guitars. The title track ends up coming off rather inoffensive but vacant, a surprisingly slow start to the record, but “Waving, Smiling” would have made a nice addition to All Mirrors, with its lovely waltz and weary vocal delivery. It’s in the alternate versions of the All Mirrors tracks that Whole New Mess wagers most of its success.

As a listening experience, this album is exceedingly minimalist, but not in a terribly interesting way; this isn’t the lonesome 120-degree desert folk of Tiny Vipers, or the emotionally enveloping songs on early Cat Power albums. Olsen has worked with small arsenals before, as on Half Way Home, but where that record was filled with a loose and engaging warmth, Whole New Mess is chilly, cold, despondent, detached. It doesn’t help that the songs are often swathed in so much reverb to the point where it almost acts like a third instrument, and one that plays its hand a bit too heavily, as on “Too Easy (Bigger Than Us)” and “Impasse (Workin’ For the Name)” (although at least the latter shows an early version of the upward swing of its eventual All Mirrors outing).

Some of the tunes here are simply inferior to their orchestral versions – which were not even the strongest songs Olsen had penned to begin with. “(Summer Song)” feels even more vacuous and repetitive in this skeletal incarnation, and “(New Love) Cassette” loses some of its magic, relying upon a whistling vocal effect laid onto Olsen’s singing. “Lark Song” is possibly the most disappointing; on All Mirrors, it comes in waves of epic strings, moving through various passages, surprising at almost every turn, whereas on Whole New Mess it falls apart without the additional instrumentation, meandering through its phases, becoming trying over its six minutes.

Not all is lost, though. The shorter version of “All Mirrors” – here titled “(We Are All Mirrors)” as if an incomplete GarageBand demo file – is insistent, with some lightly blistering feedback noise backing up Olsen’s pleading vocal. It’s one of a small handful of moments on this record where her voice rises above a murmur or too-cool delivery, and it sticks out all the more for that. “Tonight (Without You)” is still a bit too slow and ambling, but Olsen’s voice sounds lovely, with just a hair of lo-fi distortion on it. Best of all is “Chance (Forever Love)”, which is given a slightly clearer mix than much of Whole New Mess, and coasts on Olsen’s emotive and powerful voice, delivering her realization-filled lyrics (“It’s hard to say forever, love / Forever’s just so far…”) and communicating just as much acceptance and pain as they did on All Mirrors. It’s the only rendition here that comes off stronger for the spareness.

All in all, it’s disappointing to find that these original-form versions of the songs on All Mirrors don’t succeed much more than that album’s did. The issues are a little different, but some of the core problems remain, namely that some of these songs are simply too flimsily structured or under-written or under-performed to be engaging.

In a way, then, it’s oddly fitting that Olsen sees fit to end this album with “What it Is (What it Is)”, which was originally the third song on All Mirrors. It makes little sense as a closer, which accidentally reinforces so much of the non-committal vibe that a lot of Whole New Mess gives off. Of course, if you loved All Mirrors, you may very well also love this, and Olsen is still a profoundly talented singer and songwriter. She’s basically incapable of making a song that isn’t at least pretty, but this album shows that some songs are simply meant to have more meat on the bone, and others are meant to be left out of the conversation altogether.