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.

Angel Olsen Triumphs on the Stunning “All Mirrors”

“Lark,” the opening track on Angel Olsen’s new album, All Mirrors, is an astonishing song: starting at a barely audible volume, it builds through six minutes of huge dynamic shifts before ending with Olsen practically screaming over loud strings that sound kind of like fireworks going off, as if the world is crashing down around her. Its loose, disjointed structure makes it feel like a high-wire act with Olsen barely keeping her balance. The rest of All Mirrors has a similar energy, owing to her manic ambition, but Olsen never falls off the wire. Like professionals in that field, she’s putting on a show that seems risky when really she is in complete control of the situation, and it leaves witnesses asking “how did they do that?”

Ironically, one of the reasons I’ve never been hugely into Olsen prior to this album is that I didn’t think her music was ambitious enough. Burn Your Fire for No Witness is loved by many, but I was never grabbed by its deliberately lo-fi style, which obscured her ability. I liked My Woman a lot more because she seemed to gain confidence and realize she could belt songs out and still shine even with increased production values. But All Mirrors so thoroughly blows the doors off those albums that it has the effect of making her past music seem quaint. Likely inspired by the extensive scientific research indicating that strings make everything better, she surrounds herself with sweeping orchestral arrangements along with synths, and for the first time it feels like her talent is on the stage it deserves.

Olsen is shooting for high drama on this album, which is a dangerous game to play: go too far and it comes off as cheesy and melodramatic; don’t go far enough and it might just be boring. She and producer John Congleton (who has seemingly recorded 90% of music I listen to this year) go all in with the strings and production flourishes, which might turn off fans of hers used to a more grounded style. But Olsen’s ambition never outpaces her skill, and her voice is such a powerful instrument that it cuts through any amount of production and sound. This is not a comparison I make lightly, but this whole album reminds me of Björk, whose music is often dense and experimental, but tied together by undeniable artistry and a distinct voice that is impossible to ignore.

Part of the ambition of All Mirrors is in its variety of songs, which display all the different facets of Olsen’s tremendous vocal ability. “Lark” itself presented a wide range, but the following 10 tracks show so much more. On “Too Easy” she sings with a softer feminine touch, sighing her lyrics above the sound, while on “New Love Cassette” she practically mumbles and blurs into the synths. The closing tracks, “Endgame” and “Chance” are each throwback ballads like from old movies, with Olsen crooning in a more classic, vintage style. While working in a distinctive slow-tempo, orchestral mode, Olsen finds so many ways to show different sides of herself — as a vocal showcase, this is an impressive of an album as I can remember.

Olsen’s style lends itself to melancholy subject matter, and this doesn’t surprise in that regard except that the songs are cloaked in more ambiguity than before. Maybe it’s just that there are songs called “Spring” and “Summer” and this is being released right at the start of autumn, but the album’s variety and the way it’s sequenced makes me think of the passing of seasons and time. The title track indicates her interest in the possible parallel universes that exist with all of the different choices we’ve made that define who we are, and how we sometimes look back at them with regret. Most of this is through the lens of relationships and striving to live in the moment instead of dwelling on the past or fearing the future. The strings lend a gravitas to Olsen’s words and are a critical part of why every song feels like it has high emotional stakes.

What makes this album feel so real is the way Olsen’s themes of growing up and changing are mirrored by her own evolution as an artist. Even with the dramatic performances and more stagey presentation, everything is still grounded in genuine emotion that connects. The feeling I got that Olsen’s previous music undersold her ability makes me wonder if it took her awhile to find her true confidence, even as she was making acclaimed albums. All Mirrors has the feel of an album she’s been building to her whole career, with all of her previous work serving as a warm-up before the real show — and what a show it is.

The Real Angel Olsen Has Arrived

As someone who does the whole “having critical opinions about music” thing, I often find myself forming backseat ideas of where artists I feel have potential should go with their work. I’m sure all fans do this on some level, where they form expectations for upcoming releases and hope it lives up to them. But I don’t know if people who aren’t deep into this music criticism hole can fully appreciate how satisfying it is when an artist does exactly what you hoped they would.

Angel Olsen has done that on her new single, “All Mirrors,” which is my favorite song of the year by some margin, to the point that I’m listening to it almost non-stop, and when I’m doing anything else I’m thinking “I wish I was listening to ‘All Mirrors’ right now.” This is one of those perfect songs where the artist finally figures out who she is (or at least who I want her to be, which works all the same in my book).

I’m not a big fan of folk/alt country music, so I wasn’t too interested in Olsen’s acclaimed early albums. It wasn’t until her last album, My Woman, that I thought she showed how much talent and charisma she has, particularly on songs like “Shut Up Kiss Me” and its psychedelic centerpiece, “Sister.” On her new single, she’s ditched the guitars entirely and gone full-blown dramatic synth goth. It’s a breathtaking song and video that warrants comparisons to the heavy-hitters of this style of large-scale pop: Kate Bush and Björk (especially the Homogenic and Vulnicura eras). But Olsen’s voice is distinctive enough that it doesn’t feel like she’s copying anyone — this sound is hers more than any of her previous material.

It’s funny that this comes on the heels of that Sleater-Kinney song, where the band went synth and it didn’t fit any of them and made no sense. Whereas on this song, Olsen is exactly where she should be. Her voice sounds better than it ever has in this setting and her lyrics are actually more impactful when surrounded by the cinematic synths, beats, and strings. I’m not one to comment on artists’ appearances much, but I also feel a certain journalistic responsibility to point out that she looks like a god in this video, which has kind of a Sunset Boulevard vibe when combined with the lyrics about “losing beauty.” Every element of this just fits and if this represents the direction of her next album, I am very excited.

Something that has always bothered me about the discourse surrounding folk music is this assumption that artists who only play a guitar and whisper in their songs convey more authenticity and emotion than artists who go for bigger, more dramatic sounds. There are already plenty of counterpoints to that, but this song proves that Olsen’s music is more powerful and real than ever, even as she leaves that style in the dust.