Original demos revamped and released by indie legend
It’s insane to stop and realize it’s been a year since indie goliath Angel Olsen’s critically acclaimed fourth LP, All Mirrors came out. Now, she’s pulling back the curtain and breathing new life into that same material by releasing Whole New Mess, the original demos that would one day become the grandiose and cinematic All Mirrors.
Originally recorded over the span of 10 days in 2018, Whole New Mess documents the aftermath and destruction of Olsen’s long-term relationship. Mentally unable to write and record at home, Olsen and engineer Michael Harris took to the Unknown, a Catholic church turned studio in Anacortes, Washington, to lay down the tracks. The massiveness and acoustics of the space create a natural echo on Olsen’s voice, allowing her to sound incredibly close and ethereal with nearly no production.
The crux of Whole New Mess is catharsis. Where All Mirrors is commercially viable, technically precise and bold, this release is far more intimate. In a lot of ways, it feels like it’s an album specifically written by Olsen, for Olsen. In nearly every track, she noticeably loses herself in the music, offering a new vulnerability that was occasionally lacking on All Mirrors.
The two “new” songs, the title track and “Waving, Smiling,” are immediate standouts. “Whole New Mess” kicks off both spooky and sad as Olsen laments about addiction and failing to take care of herself on tour. There’s a flash of light right away on an oftentimes dark and depressing record as she sings about “getting back on track.”
Still, “Waving, Smiling” feels like the heart, the emotional turning point of the album and yet, it probably would have felt out of place on All Mirrors. Opening with finger picking that resembles Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” the song serves as a midpoint, separating the post-relationship depression from moving on and moving forward. “I’ve made my bed,” she sings of acceptance before turning the corner and telling listeners how she will “Look out my window/ The sun is shining.”
Of course, there are the easily recognizable tracks. “(We Are All Mirrors),” where fuzzy production allows Olsen to sound like she’s right beside the listener, would eventually become the clear, electronic-infused title track to All Mirrors. Plus “Lark Song,” ultimately just “Lark,” is a thousand times more heartbreaking stripped down as Olsen reflects on the verbal abuse she’s experienced in relationships. That seems to be the running theme of Whole New Mess. With no grand synths, no dramatics and almost no production to muddle the bare bones of the songs, it’s an absolutely gut-wrenching listen. Olsen’s pain is tangible and where All Mirrors feels like looking at a scar, Whole New Mess feels picking at a fresh wound.
On an applied level, Whole New Mess is a masterclass in songwriting and the creative process. To see where these songs began in comparison to the “final” product is not only inspiring but a rare peak behind the curtain. Typically, there’s a level of indignity surrounding demos, their unfinished and unpolished nature making them an artist’s dirty little secret. Olsen sheds that shame and the result is a raw, but beautiful gift to fans and casual listeners alike.
Just her voice and a guitar, Whole New Mess is the first time Olsen has been heard without a band supporting her since 2012’s Half Way Home. Simultaneously a return to her lo-fi roots and a journey of complete emotional growth, Whole New Mess is a must listen, despite how taxing and difficult it can get. And maybe that’s the point. Life is taxing and difficult too. It’s a whole new kind of mess.