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Thursday, November 30th, 2023  

Whole New Mess


Aug 28, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Angel Olsen isn’t for the faint of heart. Whether it be with her cradled folk sounds of the early 2010’s, the grumbling rock yelps of MY WOMAN, or the recent powerful cinematic tides of All Mirrors, Olsen retracts her finely-tuned bow and points it straight at the soul. This is the essence of Angel Olsen; an essence that grows wings and soars to new heights on every album.

And 2019’s All Mirrors seemed to get the most air. Packed with dancey synths and baroque strings, Olsen upped the ante to deliver a dramatically devastating collection. It felt possessed by a mystical ebb-and-flow that devoured you with its fidelity—with it’s gripe. And Whole New Mess delivers you the skeletons of All Mirrors, with nine of the same songs and two unheard tracks.

But Whole New Mess isn’t a demo. Although written and recorded prior to All Mirrors, the songs find new meaning. Sure, this could be categorized as the return of the “sad-girl” sounds of Olsen’s earlier work with just her and a guitar—and the occasional organ—but that’s only if you assume she can only have one identity; one niche. But as she’s shown us, Angel Olsen isn’t a one dimensional character—Angel Olsen is honesty, heartbreak, and sublime songwriting. So to place the two albums side-by-side feels reductive. Underneath the decadent meatiness of All Mirrors is the glass heart that is Whole New Mess. You can view the fresh blood that was pumped into the veins of All Mirrors, making it come alive. But to have that happen, Olsen had to mend her heartbreak, allowing Whole New Mess to rise from the dead.

For almost every track it’s easy to imagine Olsen sitting in a chair, guitar placed on her lap, with her eyes closed—it’s just her and her words. Her vocals, which are put on display thanks to the sparse arrangements, function like a magician’s hat. On the title track she pulls out a bouquet of wilted flowers, offering herself a soft, half-witted promise that she’ll “make a change.” But she still knows future pain is still inevitable when she makes “a whole new mess again.” On the other hand, on tracks like “(We Are All Mirrors)” and “Lark Song” she shoots out rockets with her contentious, scathing vocals. First we have self-blaming frustration on the former, “I’ve been watching all of my past repeating/There’s no ending,” she sings. On the latter she realizes she isn’t the only one to blame for the failed relationship, “Told me I was the woman he’d always be losing/Always be dreaming,” she admits before she breaks down: “dream on,” she says. “Dream on/Dream on.”

Without all the bells and whistles of All Mirrors, Whole New Mess’ story of faded love seems to wrap itself more closely around each song. But it’s a love that fits like an itchy sweater from your grandmother. You wear it, and bear through the uncomfort because you love the person who gave it to you. But soon you realize saving your own skin is better than protecting the feelings of someone who could actually care less. And on penultimate track “What It Is (It Is)” Olsen seems to fully remove that last piece of the fabric. Her voice and musical accompaniment are noticeably brighter, like the weight dragging her down has been finally lifted. “Knowing what it is it’s not enough,” she sings, “and knowing that you love someone doesn’t mean you ever were in love.”

Although simplistic in delivery, Whole New Mess feels like you’re eavesdropping on catharsis, crouched on the ground, with an ear to a door—so close you can hear her Olsen breathing between phrases. But soon enough she lets you in, holding your hand, as you both sort through the pain. (www.angelolsen.com)

Author rating: 8.5/10

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Average reader rating: 6/10


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