Growth and change is inevitable for any artist. In the fast paced and ever evolving world we find ourselves in, change is the paradox that stays constant. Over the course of the last ten years Angel Olsen has expanded and amplified her sound to greater feats than any listening to Strange Cacti way back in 2010 would have ever have thought. From the stripped back acoustic folk ballads of Half Way Home, to the crunchy Indie rock banger of My Woman, all the way to last years cinematic and orchestral All Mirrors Olsen’s sound has always sought to be bigger and bolder. All whilst maintaining her signature flair of heartbreak and stories that transcend time. On Whole New Mess, Olsen has come full circle. “The primer and precursor to All Mirrors” is what the hype sticker upon the album states and its pretty accurate. With nine out of these eleven songs appearing on last years standout album, except this time the searing synthesisers and crooning orchestras have been dropped in favour of the dynamic duo of Olsen and her guitar.
Don’t be fooled however, these aren’t the demos, “They all have different feelings” as Olsen puts it. The recording quality may not be as crystal clean, with a plethora of distortion throughout, but the vibrancy of the songs has never been stronger. This raw sound is a testament to the raw talent of Olsen herself. A lot of the prowess of the sound of All Mirrors came from the searing violin and synthesiser melodies, the dancing lead line of the title track being prime example. This time however the melody is solely delivered by Olsen’s intimate vocals that parade through a pool of reverb with the ‘Unfucktheworld’ style guitars chugging along. This is one of only two tracks that does feature some organs from Michael Harris, but as a form of backing instrumentation rather than taking the lead; the soundscapes are missing but they aren’t necessarily missed.
With the tracks that appeared on All Mirrors, it’s hard not to hum the various instrumental movements as the songs play their course. The two new tracks however stand as markers of the albums intimate sound. They don’t need the bravado and it’s hard to imagine where the sparkling synthesisers would place themselves. Title track ‘Whole New Mess’ is a slow burning, grungy moment of self evaluation. Without reading into it the lyrics could be mistaken for the usual heartbreak tell tales, however look closer and you realise Olsen is referencing herself and the struggle she puts herself through due to her constant state of flux; a life of touring will never leave you grounded. “Take a photo for the press again, It won’t be long before it’s really showing, It’s every season where it is I’m going”. Through its off-beat strumming and baritone vocals it sets in motion the movement of this album, slow but with a lot to say. And there’s the soft and serene plucked ballad of ‘Waving, Smiling’. A story of lost love, but not regret. Olsen looks back on her former self with warmth, a feeling of content rather than resent. “All my fears, cried out all of those years, Now baby I’m lying, Laid out and smilin’, Look out my window, The sun is shining”.
There are moments on this album that feel a bit too familiar to their All Mirrors counterparts. ‘Chance (Forever Love)’ or just ‘Chance’ as it was known is one of the more intimate moments of All Mirrors, with it mainly being just Olsen and a piano throughout. It does glide through the familiar stringed crescendo, but it’s the sparsest sound on the album. It’s a gleaming closer and elegant end to a more than elegant album.And whilst the newer/ older version, depending on how you look at things still delivers an incredible vocal performance, there’s just not a huge amount of variation in terms of structure and feel. Perhaps thats why Olsen chose to close the album this time with ‘What It Is’ instead.
In a time where every artist imaginable are delivering stripped back versions of their songs, with the prospect of full band shows a long way off, it takes something special to really stand out. Yes this album was conceived and recorded a long time before any notion of this nightmare year unfolded, but if anyone was going to steal the crown for doing the most with the least, it would always be Angel Olsen.