The Naked Drama of Angel Olsen's "Whole New Mess"
The record follows last year's "All Mirrors," which is identical only in its lyrical content.
It was one of the first perfect days of fall and I was listening to Connie Converse again. I am known to do this when the weather cools off, to trade chrome-coated electronic music and ecstatic old funk records for guitar songs that seem as lonely as a car parked in front of an old cabin. I was walking in my neighborhood, thinking of Converse and the way she fills empty space, how the recording quality of all of her music is shitty, coated in static and completely unvarnished. Converse was a musician in the ’50s in New York who never made it big and then disappeared. She sang about playboys who died young, about aimlessly roving the world and not giving a damn, and being so very lonely.
The first time I listened to Angel Olsen’s new record Whole New Mess, I thought about being lonely and how sometimes the most effective listening experiences are the ones that are the most sparse. I thought about Connie Converse. I thought about women sitting on porches unadorned by fancy production flourishes. I thought about how much I secretly missed sipping a gin and tonic at a dumpy bar with bad sound and watching a girl play a guitar. Angel Olsen has this effect on people, or at least on me. You want to be in a terrible mood when you listen to her music. It feels good to allow yourself the space to be transported to mundane and awful locales, to allow yourself the space to access the times everything has gone sour.
This record is the fraternal twin of last year’s All Mirrors. All Mirrors is high drama, operatic, speckled in harsh light. It’s fussy and cluttered and there are strings and synthesizers that make you feel like you’re wandering through a Breton novel or a vintage store where you can only buy cocktail dresses. Whole New Mess features eight songs from All Mirrors, in a different register of emotions. Interestingly enough, it was recorded at a church in Anacortes, Washington, months before All Mirrors began to form, but these are not demos. They were fully intended to exist in this form, cavernous and intimate. You can hear the architecture of those high ceilings and sacred textures in these songs: Whole New Mess is drafty and stripped bare. The only thing to grab hold of are the guitars and Olsen’s vocals, which are muscular and singular. On the title track, you feel as if you’re sitting on a boat in the middle of the lake and the stars are perfectly in focus. Olsen sings about stretching her bones out on the floor, and when she does her guitar creaks like the floor she dreams about lying out on. “(New Love) Cassette,” is creaky and metallic, occasionally opening and closing its jaws to sound more spacious, to allow Olsen’s vocals to submerge you in cold water.
“Waving and Smiling,” is what reminds me most of Converse. And by that I mean it is capable of conjuring up emotions with few words and constrained sound. What is crucial to know about Whole New Mess is that it is about someone breaking your heart and trying to pick yourself after the floor after the worst happens. On “Waving and Smiling,” there is more static and lo-fi hiss and you can hear Olsen’s fingers move up and down the neck of her guitar. At first you think maybe the song is about being happy in the past, and how that feeling has dissipated. But then you listen again, and you realize, just maybe, when Olsen sings about the light coming through her window in the morning, that joy exists in the present. Maybe it is the sadness that is in the past, and not the other way around.
The other night, after work, I went on a long walk and wore a coat for the first time since the spring. I walked past the water and saw the sky begin to turn pink. I was listening to Angel Olsen. I thought about how when you listen to Whole New Mess it is as if you are sitting alone in a room with her. I drank in her vocals and closed my eyes. It was one of the first cold days of the year.