Maybe a church is the best and worst place to write songs: if you’re saying a prayer they’re rarely heard, but if you’re making a confession then there’s just a chance you’ll pay down something that helps you find peace.
Angel Olsen recorded Whole New Mess in a converted church in the small town of Anacortes, Washington, with only engineer Michael Harris for company. Conceived as the heartbroken cousin to the theatrical, string laden All Mirrors which followed, in the process Olsen was both making demo material and mapping the wreckage of a relationship.
The St. Louis born singer had been releasing music for a decade, but All Mirrors had seemed to be a sort of full stop. This outing though comes laden with the suggestion that her output to-date has not so much been a natural progression as merely the next gas station on an unplanned emotional road trip.
Here things are still, the building’s natural space and design for sonic multiplicity placed on a chain. The titular opener sets a tone which never lifts itself up; a gentle, almost slumbering riff married to her elastic, understated voice, the words, as Olsen has explained, about, ‘drug addiction, being addicted to alcohol, being on tour, not taking care of yourself’, not a cry for help but a poignant, exposed brittleness.
Stripping back All Mirrors’ ephemera in a new era where bedroom albums have become a thing by necessity might give the impression of a plan, but the rawness of this material, and the singer’s deep, melancholic charisma, say no to modishness. On the epic six-and-a-half minutes of Lark Song, the embers and space are so heartfelt they resemble the fractured consciousness of Jeff Buckley, while Chance (Forever Love), reworked from the lush ballad Chance, becomes a bare-fisted Nashvillian nursery rhyme, the ghost of Patsy Cline taking the lost understanding and holding it close.
Almost throughout there’s a wall of reverb up around like an impermeable barrier. We are listening intently here, but the tangle of feelings beyond are still private. This separation briefly dissolves for the more animated closer What It Is (What It Is), but hearing these songs from behind glass, where you can almost touch them but not quite, is still revelatory.
On (We Are All Mirrors), the drag of ragged synths scorches itself into bleakness, while (New Love) Cassette is a wonderfully twisted, grunge infused moment of rare optimistic devotion (‘I’m gonna help you see when you’re hard to find/Gonna give you strength, give you all my mind’).
Angel Olsen doesn’t give the impression of someone who needs to be washed clean of sin or throw up a verse to whoever in the vain hope of finding inner peace. Whole New Mess is no product of its environment, more that of an artist for whom closure is an unnecessary outcome.
The loose ends it contains are often fragmentary genius as a result, he-loves-me-nots with a scorched power that few are capable of.