Getting a glimpse at an alternate take of a classic album is something we’ve seen more and more in the modern era. But with her new album Whole New Mess, a fraternal twin to 2019’s All Mirror, songwriter Angel Olsen didn’t have to wander too deeply into the vault. But it’s not merely a “demos collection.” Instead, Olsen reimagines the songs of All Mirror in compelling and strange ways, documenting the way songs change and morph over time in an adventurous creator’s hands.
“If I’d wanted to release demos, it wouldn’t sound this way,” Olsen says of her first proper solo album since 2012. “The sonics would be very different if I’d just recorded it myself. I was still in the process of going through a lot of the material emotionally. I just wanted to have an account of how I would’ve done it without someone really stirring the pot.”
Olsen had every intention of stirring that pot though. “I wanted to come out of the gate swinging with a big sound at the end,” she said.
That eventually happened. All Mirrors is Olsen’s most expansive sounding album to date, something that seems miles away from the stark recordings of 2012’s Half Way Home. Whole New Mess shares that record’s eventual depth, but it casts this set of songs in a different—and haunting—light.
The sessions took place across the country from Olsen’s home in North Carolina, in Anacortes, Washington and The Unknown, a recording studio inside a building that has over its long history served as Catholic church and a sail-making workshop. “I didn’t need to go somewhere where there would be super high quality gear. It was just me [but] I wanted an environment where I could be far enough away from where I lived to process the songs. I wanted someone to do it with me, so [producer] Michael Harris became part of that,” Olsen says.
Though its tracklist overlaps with her last record, this new project illustrates how songs can change over time. Much in the same way that a song’s meaning can soften and reshape itself over time for its author, here the material Olsen is working with is akin to metal freshly pulled from a forge, pliable into the forms that still hot emotions could bring about.
Central to the different shape of this album is the sequencing. “What It Is,” a song that lies squarely in the middle of All Mirrors and acts like a bridge between that album’s halves, is the closing song here. It arrives more like a conclusion hard won, something that summarizes the learned lessons of what preceded it. It makes sense that it’s the finish in this earlier draft, where a lot of processing still lay ahead.
It’s a disservice even to think of Whole New Mess as a “draft” though. “New Love Cassette,” here titled “(New Love) Cassette,” warbles and hiccups with the analog jitteriness of its titular object, a well-worn mixtape of devotion run down to its flaking threads. Opener “Whole New Mess,” one of the two songs that wouldn’t end up on All Mirrors, talks about the repeated process of making a “whole new mess” each time you walk out the door, never sitting with any of it long enough to break the patterns. Bookended with “What It Is,” it creates a throughline to a possible solution.
Whole New Mess straddles a line between new album and recreation, a snapshot of Olsen at a particular place in time. “I was trying to experiment and see what should come first,” Olsen says of the recording. “Maybe I will get more into the process of capturing the songs before I give them to people,” she added.
If the outcomes are as strong as this album, it would be very much worth having more insight into her work along the way. | j neas
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