"Whole New Mess" is a perfect album for quarantined times.
Angel Olsen's first release, Strange Cacti, sounds a bit like it's being played through a speaker from another dimension.
With her latest release, Whole New Mess, Olsen is returning to where she began, bringing her knack for spaced-out, cosmic, bare-bones folk to the expansive songs that comprised her ambitious 2019 album, All Mirrors. Her latest release takes those songs and distills them down to just guitar, synths, and voice, all filtered through a fog of reverb and overdrive.
Two of the songs are new: the first song, "Whole New Mess," and "Waving, Smiling." The rest first appeared on All Mirrors, which was recorded in Los Angeles with a 12-piece spring quartet.
Angel Olsen - Whole New Mess (Official Video) www.youtube.com
But the songs that would become All Mirrors were originally recorded in October 2018, during a 10-day stint at The Unknown, a Catholic church located in a small Washington town on the edge of the Pacific. The church, in a state of elegant disarray, was converted into a recording studio by Mount Eerie's Phil Elverum and producer Nicholas Wilbur. For Olsen, it was the perfect place to dive into the tangle of complex emotions she had been trying to distill into songs.
The Unknown ChurchAnacortesunknown.com
Olsen and co-producer Michael Harris spent 10 days at the church, hiking the nearby mountains, buying coffee from a local bookstore, and—from the sounds of things—communing with local spirits.
They spent one night projecting the film The Conjuring onto the walls and apparently heard strange sounds and clatters coming from the purportedly haunted church. The Conjuring has one of the best horror movie scores in recent memory; it's all subterranean sounds that linger just on the edge of the audible, bridging the gap between the there-and-not-there.
The Conjuring [Soundtrack] - 01 - The Conjuring www.youtube.com
In some ways, Olsen's newest album—which features these original recordings—also exists on a seam, bridging ghostly energies with earthly sound. The song "New Love Cassette, for example," collapses into ooohs that sound like field recordings from a haunted planetarium.
"To me, 'Whole New Mess' is about an addiction, not necessarily to just alcohol, but to coping by leaving all the time and never getting too attached," Olsen said to Pitchfork. Longing is a perpetual theme in addition to heartbreak, and the album is certainly a personal reckoning as much as it is a breakup album.
But Olsen has bigger themes on her mind. Later on in the Pitchfork interview, she grapples with the complexities of being a musical artist within a capitalist system. "The very reason that I'm a person of interest to have this conversation with is all based on capitalism, and I find that really f***d up," she said. "So part of my internal work is to figure out how I can continue to share my music and my life and take the capital that comes my way and share it with the people that matter."
She has yet to find the answers. "I'm having an existential moment in my career that has to do with this record," she said. "I'm going back to my roots, it's really raw, it's really purposefully f*cked up. There's nothing 'easy listening' about it, it's hard to listen to sonically if you have bad hearing. I did that on purpose because I don't want it to be polished."
To say Whole New Mess is "hard to listen to sonically" feels like an exaggeration—it's actually rather easy listening, compared to 90% of the rest of what most people have to hear on a daily basis. In a world where we're constantly being confronted by screaming headlines and the screaming of our own president, Olsen's music is a portal to another world.
Olsen's music might be eerie and surrealistic, but her voice is always a unifying force that feels larger than life at times. Every time she sings out, her voice blurs at the edges, expressing emotion reminiscent of Kurt Cobain's ragged screams (because sometimes, a clear, gentle voice isn't enough to encapsulate the chaos of actual emotion).
Like All Mirrors, Whole New Mess is about emotion—sometimes too many emotions for the listener to conceptualize at once, resulting in something that sounds like a murky, foggy haze.
Sometimes, the songs fragment and falter. Songs like "(Summer Song)" sound a bit like screams as Olsen's voice pushes against the limits of her recording equipment. On "Lark Song," her voice erupts into volcanic shouts. "Impasse," perhaps the witchiest of the tracks, culminates in rafter-shattering cries of rage.
For a perfectionist like Olsen, every break and crack in the sound is clearly purposeful. Olsen's quarantine performance contributions have been high-quality music videos, exquisite departures from the majority of iPhone isolation shows, filmed in real locations with proper lighting, production, and the works. Her cover of Tom Petty's "Walls"—filmed in a Masonic church in North Carolina—is arguably a religious experience. In another video, she performs in front of a magnificent stained glass window at Echo Mountain Recording.
Angel Olsen and Hand Habits "Walls" (Tom Petty Cover) www.youtube.com
Of course, most people don't have the opportunity to be professionally filmed during COVID-19, and Olsen's videos exist thanks to capitalism, as she said. Perhaps that's part of why most of her videos were fundraisers for the YWCA and for various other causes.
Still, despite her activism, Olsen is not a protest artist, nor is she an artist particularly bound to any place or time; Whole New Mess is an album that could've been written at perhaps any moment in history. There's something of a 1950s dream-time vibe to all of Olsen's music, yet at times Whole New Mess sounds retrofuturistic—the reverb spirals out into synthesizer-like spirals that sound cosmic and alien.
Perhaps it's the perfect album for quarantine, then–perfect for a moment when time often feels like an illusion. Many of us are panicking slightly as we realize that it's the end of summer and recognizing how much time has passed, and Whole New Mess encapsulates this bittersweet feeling. The song "Waving, Smiling"—with its lyrics, "Look out my window/The sun is shining/I'm waving, smiling," is a track that feels designed for isolation, looking out at our neighbors and friends (often through screens), waving but unable to connect.
The way Olsen sings is melancholy but not self-pitying. There's something of a "Dear Prudence" bittersweetness to "Waving, Smiling," which both envisions a better world—perhaps one without fear—and yet finds its subject trapped inside a dark room, unable or unwilling to go outside, but still singing.
Dear Prudence (Remastered 2009) www.youtube.com
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