Angel Olsen has been slowly creeping out of her shell over the past decade, as she has pushed outwards from the waif-like, ethereal folk sound of her 2012 debut LP Half Way Home. The Missouri-born singer-songwriter followed up two years on with Burn Your Fire for No Witness by adding flavours of fuzz and aggression, and she embellished things further on 2016’s My Woman by leaning more explicitly on sonic touchstones from garage rock and 60s pop. Olsen’s most fully-realised LP to date, last year’s All Mirrors, sounded like a culmination — a sweeping, haunting epic that melded Kate Bush-indebted mystic experimentalism onto Bond-theme bombast. It’s a massive, impressive piece of work and the marker of an indie innovator surely headed for the stratosphere.
If Olsen had any ambitions towards ascension, however, she was surely waylaid by onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Sliding quietly back into her shell, as we all certainly have in recent months, she released a new album with little fuss or fanfare. Announcing her new offering’s imminent release only a month ago, Olsen returns with Whole New Mess, an album that’s mostly comprised of pared-back versions of All Mirrors cuts. Here, Olsen sings from her shell once again, gently readjusting herself to a new reality.
Where All Mirrors traverses diverse terrain, taking the listener on a compellingly cinematic odyssey, Whole New Mess strips things back to a single mode. Recording in a Washington state church that was converted into a studio by Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum, Olsen and producer Michael Harris stick almost exclusively to the artist’s (considerable) voice and guitar to craft the songs as they appear — the cavernous ambience of the setting is the only notable, collateral embellishment to the record’s sound.
Licking her wounds from a tumultuous breakup, Olsen opens on the title track. It’s one of only two entirely new compositions, built on languid bluesy chords and a mournful falsetto that gradually fills out as the singer begins to assert that she’s “getting back on track.” It’s not a big sound in the same way the sound on All Mirrors is big — it’s spare and direct, but the purity of the production allows Olsen’s palpable anguish to make the track huge.
In contrast to their All Mirrors counterparts, the songs as they (re)appear on Whole New Mess may as well be considered entirely different propositions. Olsen herself insists as much in the wry retitling of each track with liberal use of parentheses and reordered phrasing. “(New Love) Cassette” eschews the assured rock’n’roll stomp of its analogue in favour of a deteriorating, descending guitar loop and an airy falsetto on its chorus, while “(Summer Song)” drops synth-led shimmer in favour of a galloping country strum. There’s an elegant simplicity to the two-chord melodies of “Tonight (Without You),” which is produced to sound compressed and distant like a half-heard, half-forgotten fragment on a transistor radio, but other tracks betray a distinct desire to evoke the scale of All Mirrors with a more limited toolset.
With “Lark Song,” Olsen creates to perfect opposite to “Lark,” which opened All Mirrors in multi-layered, exuberant widescreen. If “Lark” plays over the opening titles of a classic road movie, then “Lark Song” would play over its closing credits. Olsen’s voice is still formidable, especially as it soars on the cumulative bridge — “Dream on, dream on, dream on” she cries, but the misty guitars imply faded memories and thwarted dreams where the former track burst forth with irrepressible ambition and optimism. This is taken into even more phantasmic spaces on “Impasse (Workin’ for the Name),” where Olsen makes full use of the church setting to drench her vocal in a dreamlike echo. She’s ghostly and ephemeral on its verses, but when she cries out “don’t you know” on the chorus, she sounds like an avenging angel — at once awesome and fearsome.
The second fresh cut on Whole New Mess is “Waving, Smiling,” a sorrowful breakup ballad that appears at the album’s midpoint. On the tune, Olsen invokes the sultry croon of Dusty Springfield most explicitly to lament “I’ve made my bed” over the dissolution of a relationship. It’s gorgeous and raw, carried on a finger-picked waltz swing that allows Olsen’s vocal to rise high and reach far. This is a precursor of the earnestness of the final two songs on the album. With “Chance (Forever Love),” the huge, string-led balladry of the original track falls away into something more tender and intimate. It adds devastating power to couplets like “I don’t want it all / I’ve had enough” or “If we get to know each other / How rare is that?” as shapeless harmonic textures fill up the sides of the recording. This feeds into the big, bright acoustic sound of closer “What It Is (What It Is),” which ends proceedings with an appealingly folksy simplicity.
It would be a disservice to approach Whole New Mess purely as a comparative exercise against All Mirrors. The revisions and readjustments paint the tracks in surprising new lights and expose previously-obscured revelations about the artist at their heart. Aesthetically, it’s the closest Olsen has been to her debut in years and as such builds a bridge between the singer as she was and who she is now. It’s a considered and generous act. Olsen may have crept back into her shell, but, on Whole New Mess, there’s finally enough space for her to invite listeners inside.
Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.