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.