Whole New Mess
Whole New Mess may be a misnomer, as Angel Olsen’s latest LP is really a collection of early versions of recordings that later became 2019’s epic All Mirrors. These aren’t haphazardly compiled tracks however, as they were initially intended to come out as an album in their own right. This was recorded in late 2018 in a church-cum-studio in the small town of Anacortes, Washington. It’s just Olsen and her sound engineer Michael Harris, accompanied by acoustic and (minimal) electric guitar, and a snatch of organ here and there.
Given the difference between these initial recordings and the final product, this is certainly an interesting release. All Mirrors’ string-drenched, epic sound was a big departure from Olsen’s familiar folk and rock-based approach. Meanwhile the original versions of these songs are so stripped back that they recall her 2012 debut Half Way Home.
Your mileage with this album will vary depending on what you value in Olsen’s music. One thing remains, and that is her splendid voice. On (We Are All Mirrors) for instance, her bellowing delivery is just as powerful as on the 2019 album. Likewise, on new track Whole New Mess, Olsen’s voice alone commands this song and is utterly engaging. The other new track, Waving, Smiling, also works well. The new side to this recording is its rawness. All of these songs were inspired by a break-up, and whereas 2019’s All Mirrors was released sometime after, these early versions were recorded while wounds were still fresh. This is particularly felt on Chance (Forever Love), a heart-rending take on the track which is much more effective than the overly bombastic later version.
Those who liked the sound and epic sweep of All Mirrors will be left wanting though. Melodically these songs don’t add much to the originals, and as a result the catchier numbers like (We Are All Mirrors), (New Love) Cassette and (Summer Song) feel inferior to their later, fleshed-out versions. Likewise Lark Song is dull here relative to the epic string-laden monster that opened the 2019 album. There is also the issue of echo. The church where these tracks were recorded has a natural echo, and this reverb effect can be heard throughout the album. Sometimes it works, but too often it just sounds like bad feedback as on Too Easy (Bigger Than Us).
This is an interesting release that gives dimension to these familiar songs. However, it’s questionable if it offers enough that’s new. Those new to Olsen would be advised to check out the previous release before diving deeper.