With ‘Whole New Mess,’ Angel Olsen’s Ethereal Catalogue Comes Full Circle

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Angel Olsen released her 2016 record My Women on a career high — the album had launched the singer out of her lo-fi indie typecast and landed her across headlines and Album Of The Year lists. But while she was celebrating success, Olsen was also grappling with the repercussions of leaving a long-term relationship. Losing her partner also meant losing some close friends and even a part of herself. As a seasoned songwriter, Olsen processed the breakup the way she knew best: She boarded a plane to the sleepy and evergreen town of Anacortes, Washington to let her heartbreak flow out of her in Phil Elverum’s church-turned-studio.

The introspective sessions were not only cathartic, but also resulted in Whole New Mess, an album that’s purposefully unpolished and touched with post-breakup melodrama. The collection of songs would stand as the bare-bones blueprint for Olsen’s recent, new age-adjacent record All Mirrors. But Whole New Mess is not a simple collection of demos. It’s an emotional purge, a heartsore reflection of revelations, reveries, and broken promises — both from her ex-lover and from herself. It’s a vulnerable assemblage of reminders of what originally made fans fall in love with the singer’s haunting and poetic 2012 debut full-length Half Way Home. With an intimate look into the journey of self-healing on Whole New Mess, Olsen comes full circle both in her career and personal life.

Apart from two brand-new tracks, Whole New Mess is lyrically identical to All Mirrors. But with the production paired down to a spacious guitar and Olsen’s ethereal voice, the new album could not be further from its predecessor. Where All Mirrors is lush and cinematic, Whole New Mess is sparse and sequestered. “(We Were All Mirrors)” embodies the stark contrast between the two efforts. The song, which would eventually become her opulent All Mirrors title track, opens with Olsen’s listless lyrical delivery. The roomy production leaves the singer sounding physically distant, inching closer until a swell of screeching strings underscores the second verse. “I keep movin’,” she croons, her voice quavering as it lurches over the final word, like she’s convincing herself that moving on is necessary even if she doesn’t quite believe it’s feasible.

Whole New Mess is also devoid of the grandiose synths heard on her last release. Instead, the instrumentals implore listeners to focus on lyricism and confront minute details in Olsen’s delivery, uncovering how she oftentimes repeats choice phrases. She lays out a clear mantra on the album’s title track, one song that doesn’t have an All Mirrors counterpart. Strumming each chord with anguish, Olsen echoes her guitar’s wailing tones and belts out an honest account of her emotional journey. “I stretch my bones out on the floor / I think I really do the change.” Repeating the latter line threefold, Olsen reassures herself that growing from mistakes is possible, though difficult.

Where Whole New Mess departs from All Mirrors, it marks a return to her candid and confessional early catalog. Songs like “Chance (Forever Love)” display emotion through a piercing inflection akin to the throaty-yet-penetrating intonation heard on her debut effort’s “Acrobat” or the Strange Cacti number “Creator/Destroyer.” Similarly, tracks like “Lark Song” call back to Olsen’s lo-fi days, placing her voice at the forefront and drenching it in warm reverb.

Much of the fuzzy production on the record is thanks to location. Aptly recorded in a church, Whole New Mess is Olsen’s sermon on dejected self-understanding. Though it’s not the type of record that can be thrown on to accompany casual dinner party banter, the album curates a type of self-exploration fit for late-night identity crises and stands as Olsen’s masterclass on unguarded songwriting.

Whole New Mess offers the type of vulnerability that’s generally expected from an Olsen album but was missing on All Mirrors. Equally painful and cathartic, Olsen loses herself completely in each song. She wields her voice as a second instrument and experiments with tone, atmosphere, and resonance. The result is an album that parallels Olsen’s early catalog while distinctly displaying her growth as a songwriter, instrumentalist, and overall person.

Whole New Mess is out now via Jagjaguwar. Get it here.