Rather than a companion piece, or a set of reworked demos, Whole New Mess – Angel Olsen’s new album – is something of an evil twin to last year’s All Mirrors. Most of the songs on the new set have the same foundations as the songs on its predecessor, but the structure built on top of each one is vastly different from its counterpart.
Where many artists resort to these kinds of albums as stop-gaps or quick cash-grabs, Angel Olsen’s artistic integrity has never been in doubt, and so Whole New Mess is being met with just as much enthusiasm and excitement as any of her previous releases. Speaking of previous releases, Whole New Mess finds Olsen on a hot streak that stretches all the way back to at least 2014, when she released the modern classic Burn Your Fire For No Witness – an album that announced her as a major name for the future.
Now the future is here, and Olsen is less than a year removed from All Mirrors, which is many fans’ favourite album from her incredibly rich catalogue. So Whole New Mess has a lot to carry on its shoulders – and carry it, it does. This is a superb album, and a more than worthy companion to its sister. Described as a “super intimate and vulnerable emotional portrait that shows her grappling with a period of personal tumult”, Whole New Mess is just Olsen, some guitars, a healthy dollop of reverb and a doomy atmosphere – owing in no small part to the fact it was recorded in isolation, in “a century-old church in the Pacific Northwest.”
From the haunting, haunted title track which opens the album, to the newly fragile, wounded take on What It Is, this album takes the grandiose beauty of All Mirrors, and walks it through a David Lynchian prairie, filled with ghosts and echoes and dust. Throughout the record, we are treated to a feast of delights, from the elegant, wistful (Summer Song) to the gut-punch power of Chance (Forever Love). How Olsen has crafted an entirely new album from songs she constructed perfectly the first time is staggering. But most surprising of all of the renovations and re-imaginings is that All Mirrors’ booming title track – for many its highlight – retains its spectral power here, and finds an even deeper emotional resonance, coming close to the overwhelming, enveloping beauty of a Beach House song. If you loved All Mirrors, this is an essential listen. If you’re new to the world of Angel Olsen, this or Phases is an ideal place to start. If you’re somewhat familiar with her work and are looking to dive in, then this is just as good a place as any.
Angel Olsen, along with her contemporaries and peers, from Cate Le Bon to Weyes Blood, Aldous Harding to Sharon Van Etten, Mitski to Waxahatchee, are all leading rock music into a new, crystal dawn. They are setting new standards and higher benchmarks than any of their closest male contemporaries – and they deserve to be recognised for the invaluable efforts they’re making to bring a little life to a long-dead genre. Whole New Mess is a showcase of Angel Olsen’s limitless talent, and proof that she appears to be able to generate heart-bursting, electrifying emotional power from the simplest of means. She is an artist to be treasured, and her music is just as precious.