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Angel Olsen - Whole New Mess (Album Review)

Tuesday, 01 September 2020 Written by Matty Pywell

Last year, Angel Olsen released the stunning ‘All Mirrors’, a record that matched her vocal prowess with grandiose arrangements, splashy synths and sweeping strings. You will find familiar faces on its companion album ‘Whole New Mess’, with nine of its 11 songs representing alternate versions of tracks from its predecessor, but markedly different set dressing.

Working with engineer Michael Harris, Olsen recorded these songs at the Unknown, the converted church studio operated by producer Nicholas Wilbur and Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum. ‘Whole New Mess’ is spare—largely comprising Olsen’s voice, guitar and a truckload of atmosphere—but it is not a simple collection of demos. It’s a book of stories given new context and new purpose.

The track list has been shuffled, and while the aftershocks of heartbreak are still felt, the journey has been completely transformed. Here we receive the most raw, emotional takes on these songs; we can feel the acoustics of the church aiding and abetting Olsen’s vocals.

This space is haunted, and her high-pitched vibrato feels like it's coming out of the walls. Her performance has the power to break, uplift and go straight through you. 

‘Whole New Mess’ represents a certain headspace—it lives in the moment when your heart cracked open and the questions and arguments began piling up. Most songs involve only Olsen and six strings, but synths are used sparingly for added emotional flourishes—some moments are frost-bitten, others ruminate under dappled sunlight. 

Olsen evolves from being firmly in the grip of her feelings to trying to come to some sort of accord with her pain and experience. ‘Whole New Mess’ is a beautiful, tragic account of self-understanding and the repercussions of loss. These recordings give a whole new personality to an already wonderful batch of songs.

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