"At least nine of the eleven songs on Whole New Mess should sound familiar to anyone who has heard All Mirrors, Olsen’s grand 2019 masterpiece that earned high honours on prestigious year-end lists and glossy spreads in stylish magazines. “Lark,” “Summer,” “Chance”—they are all here, at least in some skeletal form and with slightly different titles. But these are not the demos for All Mirrors. Instead, Whole New Mess is its own record with its own immovable mood, with Olsen working through her open wounds and raw nerves with just a few guitars and some microphones, isolated in a century-old church in the Pacific Northwest. If the lavish orchestral arrangements and cinematic scope of All Mirrors are the sound of Olsen preparing her scars for the wider world to see, Whole New Mess is the sound of her first figuring out their shape, making sense for herself of these injuries.
Years earlier, while making My Woman at the legendary Electro-Vox in Los Angeles, Olsen struck up a sudden and deep friendship that transcended work with Michael Harris, the studio’s head engineer. She recognized a kindred spirit—someone more interested in the wider world and intense connections than his unexpected position of power in the music industry. Since those sessions, Harris and Olsen kept in close touch, visiting one another at home and catching up during long calls. “We see each other very clearly, without words,” says Harris. “And the guiding light of our working relationship has always been emotionality—what’s there, or what’s not there.”
With that rapport in mind, Olsen asked Harris to help find a studio where she could sit still with these thoughts, a space where, as she puts it, “vulnerability exists.” They asked around and settled on The Unknown, the Catholic church that Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum and producer Nicholas Wilbur converted into a recording studio a decade ago in the small town of Anacortes, Washington. Situated on a small finger of land that juts toward the Pacific Ocean, Anacortes would act as kind of harbour for Olsen, limiting distractions as she tried to burrow inside of these songs for 10 days in late October 2018.
Considered alongside All Mirrors, Whole New Mess is a poignant and pointed reminder that songs are more than mere collections of words, chords, and even melodies. They are webs of moods and moments and ideas, qualities that can change from one month to the next and can say just as much as the perfect progression or an exquisite chord. In that sense, these 11 songs—solitary, frank, and unflinching examinations of what it’s like to love, lose, and survive—are entirely new. This is the sound of Angel Olsen, sorting through the kind of trouble we’ve all known, as if just for herself and whoever else needs it.