In a way, listeners have already heard Angel Olsen’s new album, Whole New Mess. It is, for the most part, a reproduction of the songs on her previous album, All Mirrors. It is reminiscent of The Shins’ experiment with Heartworms and The Worm’s Heart, a reimagining of old songs with a new approach.
Recorded at the Unknown, an Anacortes church-turned-studio run by Nicholas Wilbur and Phil Elverum of The Microphones, the album has an appropriately eerie and echoing production. Here, Olsen is fencing with her past self, a singer-songwriter at war with the grandiose practices of modern production. She eschews old practices in favor of fresh ones, delicately but decisively altering her approach. It pays off.
“Lark Song,” for example, is as familiar and strong as All Mirrors’ “Lark,” but the ethereal, ghostly noises the song focuses on help to expand Olsen’s journey of grief. “Impasse (Workin’ for the Name)” is grittier and more tangible than its forerunner, “Impasse.”
Olsen isn’t just retreading old ground. Two new songs, “Whole New Mess” and “Waving, Smiling,” join the fray. In a way, they replace “Endgame” and “Spring,” two songs from All Mirrors not reworked for Whole New Mess. These decisions — what should be remade, what should be completely new — add special weight to these particular tracks.
“Waving, Smiling” is a meditation on the past. While its lyrics outwardly tell a tale of romantic loss, there is an implicit meaning behind the image of her bidding farewell, staring at the sun. It is hope for reimagination and transformation, and these concepts carry Olsen through Whole New Mess.
On the album’s titular track, Olsen sings “Make a whole new mess/ Celebrate the best/ Take a photo for the press again.” In her dejected tone, the listener can sense her bitterness toward this image-driven approach. Throughout Whole New Mess, Olsen fights for her own artistic freedom, and she gets it.
Vocally, she dominates the soundscape. Previously, Olsen had to compete with her own production. That production often felt aggressive, pushing her artistry back in favor of showing off its own instrumentation. Now, she cuts through the grit, as on “(New Love) Cassette 2,” in which her warbling voice pierces a crunchy acoustic guitar.
The change in production is a boon to Olsen’s voice in other ways — she is more in tune with the music and sounds less bored as a result. Her voice is raw and intimate on “(Summer Song),” a stunning improvement over 2019’s “Summer.” The energy is in her vocals rather than on the instrumentation, which can often falter and stumble in an endearing, pleasant way. One such case of this endearing simplicity is on “Waving, Smiling,” with the backing melody occasionally stuttering and halting.
This emphasis on voice gives stronger credence to Olsen’s lyrics. While “Chance” was a ballroom waltz, “Chance (Forever Love)” is an acoustic ballad. The song is able to maintain its reflection and finality despite the noticeable change in tone and feel.
Not all of the songs are improvements on their predecessors, however. “What It Is (What It Is)” stripped “What It Is” of the primordial energy that formerly permeated the song, and the guitar is mixed way too loud for how uninteresting it is.
Other songs aren’t necessarily worse than their All Mirrors counterparts but often forget to deliver new emotions in their second life. “We Are All Mirrors,” for example, is unfortunately too similar to 2019’s “All Mirrors,” though the screaming pitch at the end is more distant, more like a siren. Additions like this create a sense that, here, Olsen actually gets to express the musical ideas she originally had in mind for All Mirrors.
By building upon the ghosts of old songs, Olsen delivers more thoughtful and more emotive music. It is more personal, intimate and casual, defying the production process of her previous work. Her new songs add immense clarity to her mission — the search for artistic meaning, for self-expression and for unapologetically grimy production.