Whole New Mess contains nine songs that are, at their hearts, re-recordings or re-imaginings of their debut appearances on Angel’s Olsen’s release from last year, All Mirrors. This will be a divisive choice for even the most staunch of fans. In the year of bold releases by women—Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher, Jess Williamson’s Sorceress, and Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters, just to name a few—it is bold to release, in essence, a remix album. This is Angel Olsen’s first pure solo album since 2012’s Half Way Home, so it comes, among the fanbase, with heavy expectations.
Those expecting a raw album will be equal parts excited and disappointed. The Whole New Mess version of recording from “raw nerves” comes down to muddy vocals, almost the opposite of an ethereal approach. The self-titled album opener sounds like something that would crawl from the back of a bar or the start of a sound check; it announces very clearly that there will be no visit back to the synth-heavy power-folk of All Mirrors.
“Too Easy (Bigger Than Us)” houses almost all the album’s strongest elements in one track: in its “I’d do anything for you…” refrain, it highlights the kind of wistfulness that Angel Olsen keeps with a singular ownership. The vocals are loud and, in a way, simultaneously ugly and beautiful enough to rattle a house. It’s followed by “(New Love) Cassette” and “(We Are All Mirrors)” which both take a Bon Iver approach, circa 22, A Million, of mixing clear vocals with enough effects and weird noises to repel even the most dedicated listener. They fall apart, in equal parts by intention and effect. These tracks threaten to turn Whole New Mess into its namesake.
However! They’re immediately followed by “(Summer Song)”, easily Track of the Album, and one that makes a strong case for Track Of The Year. It evokes midnight buskers and subway singers with nothing but guitars and hope. Angel Olsen sounds really lonely for the first time on Whole New Mess, almost like she’s talking to herself—some of the lyrics are much harder to make out than what they’re preceded by on the album—nothing this year, even on the AAA releases noted above, sounds quite like this, and the album’s quality is indebted the flow this creates. The next two tracks flow into each other quite beautifully. Even with “Waving, Smiling” being a bit long and sleepy, it feeds into the hypnotic “Tonight (Without You)”, a high-spot where the album truly and indisputably delivers on its premise.
The album thereafter is uneven and tiresome. “Tonight (Without You)” is a thematic and sonic peak for the back half of Whole New Mess. From here, it sounds as though Olsen herself gets more than a little bored with these tracks. The listener will almost certainly follow. It is a big ask to get through to the end, bordering on, if not hitting, exhausting.
Taken as a whole, Angel Olsen’s Whole New Mess is not a bad album. It is uneven, painfully so, but its peaks are worth noting even on its worst listen. This is a tough nut to crack, but you may find yourself tapping your toes along, dropping a tear, or at the very least, admiring the guts it took to put out something with this much reverb that isn’t just Live from the Bar Down the Street.