A Whole Not-So-New Mess

Angel Olsen’s newest release, Whole New Mess, is a science experiment in album form. It serves as the control group to last year’s All Mirrors, which was my album of the year and one I was pretty much obsessed with, to the point that I briefly became an Angel Olsen “stan” and was beginning to prepare for an existence of coordinating harassment campaigns of her online detractors and doxing critics who didn’t breathlessly praise her music to my standards. In the end, I decided that life wasn’t for me, mostly because it just seems like a lot of work. But the point is, I liked the album a lot.

What I loved about All Mirrors was its grand, big stage feeling, which came from its elaborate and showy orchestral arrangements. I felt it accomplished something seemingly contradictory: while heavy production is often used to hide a singer’s lack of talent and ideas, in this specific case it actually elevated Olsen’s singing and material, and it felt like a massive leap forward from her more lo-fi music. This makes it very interesting that Olsen is now releasing this album, which is a stripped-down version of the songs from All Mirrors, allowing listeners to hear it on a smaller scale, separate from that album’s somewhat polarizing stylistic choices.

My initial gut reaction to Whole New Mess was that it seems like a solution to a problem that doesn’t actually exist — its presentation could be interpreted as being the more honest, soul-baring version of All Mirrors (and some have interpreted it that way), but that album already had those traits, just in a different way than usual. I reject the premise that music with less production and fewer instruments is inherently more genuine or real. After listening to it more, though, I don’t believe that was Olsen’s intention: this is understood better as a companion to the original, one that I’m sure some listeners will prefer, and those who don’t will have their appreciation for All Mirrors deepened even further by these versions. It’s also, if nothing else, a useful tool for debate, and whichever one you like more probably says something interesting about your taste.

Whole New Mess erases any doubt that the strength of All Mirrors was about more than just production tricks. Olsen’s songs with minimal accompaniment still jump out, as does her singing, and the songs feel surprisingly complete. “Lark,” the dazzling, almost structureless opener to last year’s album is presented as “Lark Song” here, and even without the epic strings that sounded like fireworks, it’s an affecting, dramatic song. “We Are All Mirrors” is the reimagined version of the (former) title track, and it’s still a highlight, as it’s Olsen’s lyrics, singing, and writing that made it one of my favorite songs of the last few years. A couple new songs are mixed in: “Whole New Mess” and “Waving, Smiling” are Roy Orbison style minimal ballads that fit more with Olsen’s older work and are hard to imagine fitting on All Mirrors the way it was presented.

Since it’s clear that Olsen’s songwriting holds up regardless of how it’s produced, the question then becomes whether the ambitious sound of All Mirrors improved on these versions. And I’m sticking to my guns on this.  These are great songs in any form, but they deserved to be on the big stage and presented with the splendor and majesty of last year’s album. Listening to Whole New Mess gave me a newfound appreciation for Olsen’s talent, but also made me recognize how much the production choices filled out and enhanced her songs, turning them from the minimal folk-rock heard here into cinematic, immersive showcases. The stripped-down versions lose a lot of the fun of All Mirrors, which was hearing an artist plunge into new musical territory while pushing their talent to epic heights. They also don’t have that fascinating tension between the dense sound and the intimate lyrics and performance. Most of all, what’s missing on Whole New Mess is the feeling of hearing something monumental that couldn’t be easily replicated by anyone else. There are tons of solitary lo-fi folk records, but there is only one All Mirrors, which is what makes it Olsen’s most towering achievement.

No Joy’s “Motherhood” Goes Where No Shoegaze Has Gone Before

I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this No Joy album. Guitarist Laura Lloyd left the band after 2015’s More Faithful, leaving it as a solo project for Jasamine White-Gluz, who spent the last few years experimenting with her sound on very hit-or-miss EPs. Her music started leaning into influences like trip-hop and nu-metal, and it triggered the old fogey within me that thinks change is scary and bad. This particularly comes out with shoegaze, which I love in part because it has this formula that has been iterated on forever: one part loud guitars, another part soft, breathy vocals, a touch of subtle melody. There are tons of bands every year trying their own spin on it, and it’s fun to hear the different takes on a familiar concept. There’s also a comfort in knowing a certain amount of releases every year will sound just the way I like it, no matter what else is happening in music or the world.

The daringness of Motherhood, which has finally arrived from the lab after all those EP experiments, is how it refuses to adhere to all of these shoegaze tropes. White-Gluz doesn’t want to sound familiar: she wants to do something new, and she succeeds in making an album that legitimately sounds like nothing else, yet is also still definitively No Joy. She has moved beyond labels or definitions and in some ways created her own style of music.

Motherhood is full of songs that conceptually probably started with the words “what if.” Sounds, genres, and influences that have never been in the same song before collide repeatedly, but in a way that is cohesive and not something that sounds like an empty mash-up. White-Gluz enlists her sister, Alissa (who is the vocalist for death metal band Arch Enemy) on “Dream Rats,” which features her growling vocals, punishing noise, thunderous beats, and a shimmering synth part along with Jasamine’s uncanny light voice, which remains a staple of No Joy’s sound. It’s a mix of beauty and ugliness and plain strangeness that all somehow coheres into a poppy, addictive song. And that’s just a glimpse of the exhilarating creativity running throughout the album.

The secret part of No Joy’s success that I overlooked previously, when I was so focused on their guitar sound and the shoegaze formula, is that White-Gluz has a real knack for off-kilter hooks. She makes songs that are difficult to stop listening to, in part because they’re so different and hard to figure out. “Four” starts with a loud guitar riff, then randomly drifts into an entrancing trip-hop excursion featuring the sound of a baby and some looping half-whispered vocals. Nothing about it makes sense to me, and I have no idea how she thought to put all these sounds together. She says it was a love-letter to music she loved in the late 90s, but that doesn’t explain how she has made everything fit and feel like her own style. A frequent thought I had while listening to this was “I have no idea what this is, but I wish there was more of it.”

Not since Bon Voyage by Melody’s Echo Chamber has an album in this shoegazey realm captured so much imagination and been so willingly eccentric. It’s like a surreal late-90s time capsule mixed with forward-thinking pop, and it is so fun to hear an album willing to take the listener on a journey into unexpected territory. It even has some comprehensible lyrics from the band for a change, about (you guessed it) motherhood and White-Gluz’s feelings as a woman in her 30s who feels the pressure to have kids (the baby in “Four” also feels like a nod to this theme). But mostly, this is a musical thrill ride and listeners who are on board with its strange, adventurous style might have a hard time wanting to get off it.

The Legacy of Trish Keenan: Until Then

If you think nothing is yours
And if I think everything belongs to me
How wrong I’ll be
None of us have anything
There’s a place I have never explored
Another world we have yet to conquer
And until then none of us have anything

Those words, from “Until Then” off The Noise Made By People, have stuck with me more than any other lyrics in music. In typical Broadcast fashion, they’re simple, and sung unpretentiously, yet lend themselves to unlimited interpretation. They’re paired with creaky, heaving synths that near the end swell into a massive buzzing crescendo that was probably the loudest the typically quiet band ever sounded on record. Then suddenly, it stops, and reverts to silence — a beautiful sound is extinguished.

Trish Keenan died in January, 2011, after contracting swine flu while on tour in Australia. She was only 42 years old. At the time, I was living in a dorm room during J-Term and I woke up to the news from Pitchfork and couldn’t believe it. Again, I wish I had a better story, like I cried or went into a fascinating nihilistic tailspin. But all I did was turn on her music, and I listened to Broadcast’s whole discography all the way through that day, mostly through my crummy laptop speakers, I think out of hope it would somehow echo through the building and people would hear it and discover it.

Her death meant the context of the songs changed permanently, and because they tended towards being ambiguous, some of them, like “Until Then,” jumped out more than they had for me previously. Now I think Keenan’s lyrics describe an afterlife or possibly a parallel universe — a psychedelic kind of world separate from this one where I like to imagine her continuing to explore and find the truth. Normally, I don’t buy into such concepts, but Keenan’s greatest gift was her ability to make you believe, to provide thoughtfulness and hope in the face of cynicism and darkness.

In the wake of her death, there was a gratifying outpouring of appreciation for Keenan, including from a range of celebrities, and a lot of discussion about a band that was rarely the subject of online discourse. But then everyone moved on, as they do, and now I wonder if people under a certain age have any idea who this band is (even I’m probably on the very young side of Broadcast fans). It’s also become abundantly clear that bands like Broadcast aren’t a priority for the music press, which has become a monoculture that is obsessed with what is new and hip, not necessarily what will last. If music writing isn’t about preserving bands like this, that offer so much, then what exactly is being accomplished?

Ultimately, the responsibility now lies on fans of the band to pass this music down, almost like an oral history. One of the more satisfying experiences I had recently (back when I thought I would finish this series in a couple months) was attending a Keenan tribute show at Moon Palace Books, which featured local bands covering her songs. The entire room was cramped with people talking about Keenan, celebrating her art, and every singer did their best to interpret her songs, even though she had something intangible that will never be replicated. That was when I saw the impact of her music in more real terms: while Keenan was not a mega-celebrity, and isn’t a constant source of discussion now, there was this entire group of people inspired and moved by her music, many of whom were playing in their own bands. That’s the legacy I like artists to strive for rather than winning awards or generating buzz.

Keenan was able to inspire that kind of devotion while being soft-spoken and unassuming. She let her music do most of the talking and made songs that gave listeners the freedom to join her while she explored all of these different worlds. As a relative novice to music when I discovered the band, she was the artist who inspired me the most, who showed me the joy that could be had in hearing music that aimed to be intelligent, generous, and personal rather than just profitable. And she made me want to pay that forward, to try to convince people that there are amazing obscure artists out there who can change your life and are just waiting to be discovered.