She’s the girl who said having her heart broken was the coolest thing that ever happened to her. It’s complicated, but she’s right. It’s fuel for all those fires, and she’s got two albums out of hers.
Nine of the eleven songs here came to us on 2019’s ‘All Mirrors’, a detour of unexpected grandeur from lo-fi darling Angel Olsen, sodden with strings and lush orchestration. - 'Whole New Mess' represents the other side of that looking glass - the wretchedness, the faked bravery, the ugly-cry.
She recorded it in The Unknown, a studio in an old church in Washington, run by Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum. She chose it because she wanted a place where “vulnerability exists”. Working versions under soon-to-be-changed titles, these sparse arrangements are more than just sketched outlines. Stripped down to their rawest nerve, unfiltered yet purified - they transport us straight to the feeling.
Opener ‘Whole New Mess’ is delivered with the weariness of one who knows love’s merry-go-round (“When it all fades to black I’ll be getting back on track...Make a whole new mess again”). But she isn’t without will to reform. ”I’ll really do the change”, she vows.
'Too Easy (Bigger Than Us)' and 'New Love Cassette' nail the swoon and the sway of how it all begins: demo-like, they’re so intimate she could be singing into your ear.
Sweetly strummed and lullaby-light, Olsen’s voice coos us into 'Waving, Smiling'. But it’s a whole other diary entry in those lyrics, penned by a wounded woman. Soaring to the highest reaches of her register (“I’ve made my bed/ Made up of all my fears...Cried out of all those years”), she brings alive the bone-china bravery of waving with tears in your eyes. It reminds me of that Stevie Smith poem of the man lost at sea.
Stripped of ornament, her voice alone takes us through so many moods - pleading, persuasive, hauling herself through self-inquiry to reach some form of forgiveness of self.
For me? '(Summer Song)' is the definitive. “Was I becoming what I had to be? Was that the truth I was supposed to see?” she asks.
It’s the diamond of this album - with an echoing power, and lyrics that seems to wrap up all its realisations.
Like its mirror sister, 'Whole New Mess' is a record about disentangling from love, and the exquisite agonies that go along with that. And though raw-edged and rougher, it doesn’t stew in its sadness. Less production simply means less interruption to what she’s transmitting to us. We can better hear the other story being told, that underscores these songs and their subjects.
It’s about a woman walking away from something that no longer serves her, and becoming the person she always should have been. And with only voice and guitar and lyrics scrawled straight from heart to songbook, she takes to the microphone in that converted Catholic church and sings like a lark. Ascending.
Words: Marianne Gallagher
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