Published Aug 25, 2020Pulling threads of light from some unknown place, illuminating the darkness to reveal silhouettes of memory – this is Angel Olsen's craft. She's a songwriter unlike any working today, who can ignite a fire or snuff one out with a simple turn of phrase. Whole New Mess, a sort of sister record to last year's obliterating All Mirrors, brings you closer to Olsen's secret electricity than she's allowed in nearly a decade.
Whole New Mess is Olsen's first solo guitar record since 2010's Strange Cacti EP, but to call it a return to her roots would be misleading – Olsen is a different songwriter now, a different vocalist, keeper of a different sort of power. Where her earlier records often dealt in narrative specificity and names, Olsen has graduated to a singular plain – her songs don't tell stories so much as they tell of dreams. Her writing is precise in feeling rather than time and place.
Crucially, Whole New Mess is not All Mirrors: The Acoustic Sessions – it's an individual work, with a revised tracklist that includes two new songs and an entirely different atmosphere. Where All Mirrors pushed at the sky, Whole New Mess explores the vastness of the mind and peculiarities of the heart. It may take repeat listens to hear these roughly hewn songs as more than demos for their gilded twins, but once you've waded deep enough into the record's shifting, disintegrating twilight, it becomes something wholly new.
And though it's a lonelier record, Whole New Mess is somehow more optimistic than its predecessor. There's some stirring power in hearing Olsen tackle these songs alone – though it was recorded prior to All Mirrors, it sounds as though she's closer to finding the answers to that record's questions. The album ends with "What It Is (What It Is)", a surprisingly hopeful pep talk, a bit of tough love, a resignation to the fallibility of the heart and a celebration of our fickle humanity.
There's no telling where Angel Olsen will go next, what places she has yet to discover. But Whole New Mess proves once again that she requires nothing more than her voice and guitar to craft a world all her own – it's a place unlike any other. (Jagjaguwar)