Album Review: Angel Olsen – Whole New Mess

I have a confession to make. I didn’t know Angel Olsen before getting this record to review. And now? Well, let’s just say my Spotify and YouTube histories have changed this weekend.

Coming to a record of songs which are performed and recorded with just one person, but have previously recorded and released in far grander arrangements, make for an interesting start point in my journey into the music of Olsen. As such I’m sure many comparisons will be made to the previous record. And I’m sure people will have preferred versions of the songs which are on both, even if they sound like completely different beasts.

Knowing that she wanted to record, whilst going through complex feelings, required trusting an engineer to help capture the mood, for which she turned to friend and previous collaborator Michael Harris, whom she had known since making My Woman in 2016. Over 10 days in a studio which had been converted from a church, they recorded the 11 songs which make up the record. Two of the songs (the title track and ‘Waving, Smiling’) were not present when Olsen re-recorded the songs for last year’s All Mirrors, which gives listeners something new to appreciate. The latter almost feels like an interlude, despite the notes of sadness which Olsen sings beautifully. It gives the listener a moment of gently smiling hope through those tears whilst swaying along to the waltzing guitar.

The raw exploration of heartbreak and loneliness, as well as a disconnect with the world, are all present here (the title track speaks of desperation and loneliness and life on the road). Trying to figure yourself out after a breakup, who you are as an individual and how you relate to the other people and components of your life can be a revelation. Olsen states: “I had gone through this breakup, but it was so much bigger than that—I’d lost friendships, too…I wanted to record when I was still processing these feelings. These are the personal takes, encapsulated in a moment.”

Every song here deserves to be listened to in a devoted and singular way. You want to experience these songs without interruption and give them their due time. When a record chimes with me, I find myself humming refrains as a I go about my day. Several times this week as I’ve been walking to and from work, I’ve found myself humming snatches of songs. ‘Waving, Smiling’ has often been drifting around inside my head, but it’s ‘What It Is (What It Is)’ that has been most often simmering away in my wanders to work.

Now that I’ve had the opportunity to listen to more of Olsen’s work, the comparison between the previous record and this are stark. I quite like this standpoint though. Being able to appreciate these songs, the rawness of their recordings and the soaring vocals from Olsen, alongside the simple guitar work (along with a little reverb), really allow the stories she’s trying to tell to come to the fore. At first listen, the 11 songs on Whole New Mess portray a woman who is working through an awful lot of emotion. On repeated listens it seems more like she’s not necessarily trying to find answers but perhaps she’s working out the questions.

Ulrike Gotts

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