Angel Olsen began the process of making her 2019 record All Mirrors with incredibly sparse solo arrangements. Before songs like “Lark,” “Summer,” and “Chance” became shimmering supernovas, they were quiet and haunting, not unlike Olsen in her early days. Amid the press blitz of All Mirrors, Olsen hinted at releasing the original versions one day. With Whole New Mess, now she has. Recorded in The Unknown, a practically mythological recording studio in an old Catholic Church in tiny Anacortes, Washington, with producer Michael Harris at the helm, Olsen built these songs in late 2018, but has breathed life back into them.
It is fascinating to imagine the reception to the album as the Whole New Mess version following the explosive rock and roll of 2016’s My Woman. With All Mirrors, Olsen launched a decadent, artful stage performance for its sold-out tour. Whole New Mess feels like pulling back the curtain and smudging off the paint to reveal a collection of startlingly beautiful bones. These songs are still Olsen mining a painful breakup and finding out who she is in its aftermath, but without all the glitz and glam production, they somehow feel less calamitous and more hopeful. A song like “What It Is (What It Is),” driving and fuzzy on All Mirrors, is a confident shrug of acceptance of the way love sometimes goes, like making peace with it and looking back fondly. It isn’t sad, it is bittersweet. Olsen can still reach unfathomable heights with her signature vibrato, and here, with less dressing, we can be more fully enamored with it. “(Summer Song),” synthy and ominous on All Mirrors, is all soft strength on Whole New Mess, like a ghostly garage rock ballad. The lo-fi “Lark” on display here is miraculous in the way it captures Olsen’s voice in the cavernous depths of The Unknown.
The side-by-side comparisons can be all-consuming, but two standouts on Whole New Mess are fresh cuts. “Waving, Smiling” finds her picking up the pieces, her voice delicate and shaky between the stark finger-picking notes of her guitar. The album’s title track feels like a decompression followed by a strong hit of the reset button. “Gettin’ back on track … make a whole new mess again,” Olsen sings, reminding us there are always mistakes waiting out there for us to make them.