Album Reviews

Album Review: Angel Olsen - Whole New Mess (Jagjaguwar)

Clare Martin

With Angel Olsen's new album Whole New Mess due out 28 August via Jagjaguwarwe join Olsen in the lamp-lit back room of her break-up house. The birthing place for the breath-taking previous album All Mirrors, these are the songs in their skeleton form.  Initially both albums were to be released together, then Olsen realised the power of the orchestral version meant All Mirrors had to come first. Here then are the post-separation home truths laid bare in a first solo album without a band since 2012.

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Angel Olsen by Kylie Coutts

How wrong is it to critique someone’s break-up diary?! It’s a deeply personal experience but if the soundtrack is shared with the world, we all get to peer inside. This album is not a catharsis, it’s the numbness of realisation.  And as such the energy at times draws back inside Olsen’s skin. It is almost too up-close and personal.

She is aware of the conundrum of this public/private tug in her album mantra: Make a whole new mess again/ Celebrate the best/ Take a photo for the press again. And by putting almost all the names of her tracks in parentheses "(New Love) Cassette", "(We Are All Mirrors)" I wonder if she needs to encircle the rawness in some loving arms. Maybe this just brings out the mother in me.


Angel Olsen (image by Kylie Coutts)

All these confessional songs were recorded in a century-old church in the Pacific Northwest. In her opener, the title track “Whole New Mess”, she is really laid bare beneath the holiness of the vaulted church ceiling: I stretch my bones out on the floor. Stark voice and guitar resolving I think I’ll really do the change/ …. when it all fades to black/ I’ll be gettin’ back on track”. But does she get back on track?

Her fourth track, “We Are All Mirrors” is still one of her most compelling songs. But without the cinematic scope and the warm strings from the All Mirrors version, the song loses it’s wings somewhat.

The magic of Olsen vocally is she spans so many genres yet retains the directness of singer-songwriting authenticity. "Too Easy (Bigger Than Us)" is her country crooner sound.  The lo-fi indie distortion of “(New Love)”. The dream-pop of “(Summer Song)” shines a light on a voice that shimmers with fragility.  

The aching melancholy goes right through you in “Waving, Smiling”. It brings to mind Stevie Smith’s poem 'Not Waving, Drowning' with her lyrics The sun is shining, I’m waving/ Smiling at love forever, alive and dying.  No one describes post-breakup pain better.

But by “Tonight (Without You)” the inertia of these blues almost gets too much. Even with a glimpse of her trademark fire in “Lark Song” it’s a brief interlude before “Impasse (Workin’ For The Name)” and she admits I’m just living in my head. We become the friend on the end of the phone, worrying about her drugged tone and stumbling guitar. And we become saturated in an over-abundance of reverb.

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Image by Kylie Coutts

The tenth track “Chance (Forever Love)" is the touchstone into our angel’s beauty and pain. Lyrics sung in blue country tones and it is a jewel of a song, the soundtrack to a place we’ve all experienced.  

Her final song sums up the journey in which things are still pretty screwed. Whereas All Mirrors burned with a bravado akin to "Unfucktheworld", this fifth album is the undecorated bones of the realities of being on her own. And, in a locked-down 2020 that offers us more introspection than concert gigs, we have ample opportunity to share Angel Olsen’s break-up house.

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You can pre-order Whole New Mess HERE

Click here to stream or buy
Released: 28 Aug 2020

Written By: Clare Martin Clare has performed as an opera, recital and oratorio artist in UK most notably the Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London. In NZ she has performed with NZ Opera and with the NZ Symphony Orchestra but more recently she has moved into a wider range of contemporary genres including jazz and even Leonard Cohen. Since 2008 Clare has been teaching from her own music studio working with professional and beginner singers. In 2017 she was a mentor on TVNZ’s The Naked Choir working with a cappella choirs and she currently coaches barbershop and a woman’s ensemble.