Angel Olsen’s “Whole New Mess”: Distress, Recontextualized

Whole New Mess is the latest release from indie artist Angel Olsen. Courtesy of Jagjaguwar records.

“Whole New Mess” is the latest release from indie artist Angel Olsen. Courtesy of Jagjaguwar records.

A little over a year since the artist’s last album release, American indie rockstar Angel Olsen returns with a pleasant, if not fairly stagnant reimagining of her most grandiose album to date. What was originally a lavish, dramatic expression of emotions is now presented as a vulnerable and raw showing of emotional limbo.

It is almost impossible to discuss the new album “Whole New Mess” without mentioning her 2019 effort, “All Mirrors.”

“All Mirros” video

The two albums consist of similar songs across their respective tracklists. The catch is that while “All Mirrors” took a much more grandiose approach to its production, consisting of synths, string sections and dramatic crescendos, “Whole New Mess” uses the same songs and strips them down to have a demo-type quality to them.

 The 11 tracks on “Whole New Mess”, are accompanied by nothing but Olsen’s guitar and minimal production effects.

“Whole New Mess” video

Olsens vocals and guitar work consistently peak, causing some distortion. This choice only further contributes to the lo-fi quality of the album. It has a tendency to become grating, at times verging on headache inducing. While it started out as charming, giving off a certain intimacy that “All Mirrors” could not possibly reach, after repeat listens it can be easy to long for the mic quality of the originally released recordings.

The result of these production choices gives the entire album a dreamlike ambience to it. It feels like the moments when you have just woken up and find yourself staring at the ceiling. It’s when your thoughts are still slightly incoherent and distant but the emotions following them are nonetheless very real.

Even with all of the complaints regarding its production, it is hard to deny the charm that these small-scale recordings contain. 

At times, Olsen sounds like a country-western singer from the ‘70s performing in some dusty bar on a highway in the middle of nowhere,” such as on the album’s closing track, “What It Is (What It Is)”. Compare this vocal performance to that of the borderline mumbling on a song like “(New Love) Cassette” and you get an album that is overall lacking in sonic versatility but has a consistent enough aesthetic that it works as the soundtrack to your daily routine.

Is this album the most exciting or ear-catching release in recent memory? Not necessarily. It struggles to hook the listener when every song is no more than some intimate strumming and Olsen’s humming.

Is this to say that “Whole New Mess” is worth skipping? Once again, not necessarily. If having your day accompanied by Olsen crooning about lost love over some light guitar sounds like a worthwhile time, this may be an album worth checking out.

Recommended listening settings include while brewing your morning coffee and absent-mindedly staring out the window as the world outside slowly crumbles.

Rating: 6/10 

Thomas Stremfel can be reached at [email protected] or @tomstremfel on Twitter.