In many ways, Angel Olsen’s All Mirrors was a quintessential pre-pandemic record: elegant music with vast orchestral arrangements, made for glitzy all-nighters spent wandering the city. Less than a year later, the ballrooms might be shut down, but Olsen has returned with something far more intimate and spectacular.
Whole New Mess presents the All Mirrors material in its original form, which Olsen laid down in the fall of 2018 inside the Unknown, Phil Everum’s Catholic-church-turned-studio in Anacortes, Washington. The cinematic, grandiose arrangements are gone, allowing Olsen and her guitar the space to explore a raw and emotional intensity as she grapples with the dissolution of a long-term relationship. “Won’t be long now before it’s really showing,” she sings on the opening title track, one of the two new songs on the record. “It’s every season where it is I’m going.”
Whole New Mess evokes both her 2010 debut EP Strange Cacti and Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska — this is Olsen radiating her vulnerability from a mansion on the hill. “Took a while but I made it through,” she sings on “(Summer Song),” a track that’s infinitely greater this time around. “If I could show you the hell I’d been to.” On “Waving and Smiling,” the dazzling centerpiece of the record, she overcomes her heartbreak: “I’m waving smiling/at love forever alive and dying/The sun is shining, the sun is shining.”
Olsen had originally planned to release All Mirrors and Whole New Mess simultaneously: “In the beginning, I thought it would be cool to have both at once,” she told Rolling Stone last year. “But I think it’s more interesting when people can listen back to stuff later that’s the original version, versus it all being compared at once.” Giving both of these records some distance allows for the songs to have breathing room, and for Whole New Mess to stand on its own. “It’s hard to say forever love,” she sings on “Chance,” formerly the epic finale but now a penultimate dirge. “Forever is just so far.”