During a recent session at the Thriving Roots AmericanaFest event, the multi-Grammy award-winning producer John Leventhal and singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz discussed the problem of “demoitis”. Succinctly defined, “demoitis” occurs in the recording studio when an artist and producer start out with the rough demo and add flourishes and effects to a song only to strip them off later as they realize the unpolished version was better. That’s rather the case here. Angel Olsen released All Mirrors to critical acclaim back in 2019 with strings, horns, and synths. Her latest album, Whole New Mess, features the naked versions of many of these songs.
Olsen recorded the original tracks with engineer Michael Harris in remote Anacortes, Washington, back in October 2018, in a converted Catholic church. The location had lots of open acoustic space that adds a ghostly echo to her vocals. This makes her singing by herself the verbal equivalent of whistling in the dark to show one is not afraid. Indeed the act of making noise empowers Olsen with the courage to keep exploring her melancholy, emotional states of mind.
No one would call this a pretty album. It’s much too stark. But something is riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that’s soft and comforting. She quietly strums her acoustic guitar to provide a foundation, but the sound often disappears underneath her vocals’ intensity. Consider “Impasse (Working for the Name)”; it starts as scratchy as an old 78 rpm shellac disc. Olsen raises the volume of her voice at about halfway through the song even as her guitar playing remains steady and unobtrusive. “I’m just living in my head,” she croons only to respond, “I never lost anyone.” Her loneliness is made concrete by the quiet reverberations of her solo voice.
The limitations of the equipment purposely distort Olsen’s vocals. On tracks such as “(New Love) Cassette” and “(We Are All Mirrors)”, there are warbles and chirps seemingly caused by the stretching of the audiotape or being in the red zone of the recorder. This only adds to the intimacy of her confessions.
The 11 songs on Whole New Mess are about heartbreak and the end of a love affair she thought would last. The album finishes on a sort of hopeful note with “What It Is (What It Is)” that first appeared in the middle of All Mirrors. The lyrics suggest an ending but not a resolution: “And knowing that you love someone / Doesn’t mean you ever were in love.” The song ends with 18 seconds of silence. Hindsight may be 20/20, but that doesn’t make moving on any easier.
After all, the new album is called Whole New Mess for a reason. The title’s song’s chorus about making “a whole new mess again” proclaims that she’ll be “getting back on track”. The album serves a cathartic purpose. It’s her version of a talking cure. Olsen dressed it up on All Mirrors, but these raw tracks show the pain and work involved in starting over.