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Angel Olsen: “Trouble With The Heart” on All Mirrors and Whole New Mess

Michael Athey discusses two of Angel Olsen's most intriguing albums, aesthetically contrast yet deeply intertwined

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Image Credit: Jagjaguwar Records, 2019

Angel Olsen’s latest albums are paradoxically equally different and similar. 2019’s All Mirrors continues what she began with MY WOMAN and fiercely furthers her departure from her traditional sound. In contrast Whole New Mess, released a month ago, is a steadfast return to her traditional acoustic sound. Despite vastly different aesthetics, they are interlinked to each other because they both have the same songs. Sister albums almost. This relationship underpins the album’s main themes, making them equally, different similar and brilliant. The finest work Olsen has recorded to date.

Some artists don’t have the confidence or the skill to master a change in sound straight away, possibly taking a few albums before they perfect the change they envisioned. This is not the case with All Mirrors [2019]. Sharp strings, dark basslines and glitzy synths all swell, to produce an album which lands as many emotional punches as it throws, colliding them with orchestral power. Radiohead’s latest album A Moon Shaped Pool, seems to be a clear influence and this is only a positive. The orchestral reinforcement is the perfect addition to compliment Olsen’s already angelic voice as it gives her an extra dynamic to push and pull us listeners along with. Whether that be interweaving with the strings to coax us with a beautiful serenade like on ‘Spring’, or wrestling over each other to pummel us with hurricane like force on the terrifying ‘Impasse’. This is an impressive sounding album.

Enjoyably, this aura extended to Olsen’s live performance too which I had the pleasure to witness earlier this year. The tracks on All Mirrors aren’t necessarily high octane songs that would lend themselves to riling up the crowd, despite this the album dominated the setlist, and Olsen proved doubters (probably naively just me) wrong, by performing them in a manner that made it an enthralling gig. While they played, the shadows of the band made atmospheric spectres on the wall, making it a truly immersive experience.

These spectres are noteworthy. They’re possibly coincidental, but they do support the main themes Olsen raises on the album. All Mirrors is an intuitive title, for whenever you look into a mirror, you always see yourself reflected. However, that reflection, although undoubtedly always you, can always look different. The album is an examination of these different reflected versions of ourselves and what self-revelations they can teach us. It ornately sets the stage for this in the terrific opener ‘Lark’. With a declarative statement, “Hiding out inside my head, it’s me again, it’s no surprise I’m on my own now”, we discover Olsen’s recent relationship has failed and as the percussion hits, she too hits rock bottom.

It is through the process of climbing back up that Olsen’s different apparitions begin to appear in the mirror.

A lot of them are shrouded in darkness. One in the title track, takes shame over her ageing body lamenting, “losing beauty, at least at times it knew me”. Another in ‘What It Is’, expresses a slightly humorous tone as Olsen sarcastically taunts that love, “is easy”. However, the song twists to reveal that it is more maniacal than humorous, with the reality being her faith in love is broken and claiming love is just an act to forget our “heart[s] are full of shit”. Thankfully, as the album nears its end glimmers of light begin to show in the tunnel. ‘Tonight’, is a beautiful song of self-empowerment, which starts with Olsen listing aspects, “the air”, “the thoughts”, “the life” that she has forged enjoyment from by herself, “without you”; and slowly throughout the track Olsen manages to shift her mindset from “you” to “about me”, her own self-worth.

Learning that happiness is about being able to value yourself just as much as others. By the final track Olsen comes as close to a peaceful resolution that we are going to find. ‘Chance’ is arguably the highlight of Olsen’s career so far, and although the song itself is stunningly perfect, from the strings and her best vocal performance to date, perfection is not the message it proclaims. Quite the opposite, Olsen’s final word is not to make perfection the be all and end all, chasing a fantastical “forever love” might lead to disappointment; but trying to live in the moment, as she alternatively proposes, “Why don’t you say you’re with me now?” and do so “with all your heart”, could be the peaceful compromise to reach for.

Of course, although hopeful this advice isn’t necessarily the easiest to put into practice. A point that Olsen herself willingly concedes in interview stating, “I’m just as lost as anybody” and “I’m trying to be at peace with not [having all the answers]”. This explains the reasoning behind the inception of Whole New Mess, another album from Olsen released just a few weeks ago. Somewhat misleadingly titled it’s not necessarily wholly “New”. The songs are the same as the ones on All Mirrors (except for two) but are instead recorded solely with Olsen singing over her acoustic guitar. Nevertheless, it’s a clever progression of All Mirrors’ themes. It subscribes to Olsen’s point that these struggles lack perfect results, that the same heart trouble can return even a year removed and showing it is human to have these pervade your life. However, more interestingly it extends All Mirrors theme of different reflections of ourselves. Two versions of the same album, as if different reflections from the mirror. One a glamorous orchestral epic, the other a ghost singing in the rafters. Both are Olsen, both vocalise bleeding on the tracks, just differently.

Once again, different reflections on different days.

Although, Whole New Mess doesn’t have the same ambitious instrumental composition as All Mirrors (which makes it overall the better intriguing listen), that doesn’t mean it is devoid of intrigue and quality itself. The two new tracks (‘Whole New Mess’ and ‘Waving, Smiling’) are worthy additions to Olsen’s repertoire and the return back to her traditional sound will be welcomed by her earliest fans. But it is the production choices, or lack of, that make Whole New Mess a compelling listen. Whole New Mess is All Mirrors stripped of its makeup, ditching the elegance and glamour to create an emotionally brittle listening experience. Guitar slides to fret to fret, background noises, overzealous echoes and reverb, are all audible little imperfections that survive studio cuts but by remaining present hammer home the imperfections of human love that Olsen lays “out on the floor”. As a consequence, of the pair Whole New Mess can be interpreted as a more honest portrayal of Olsen’s struggle.

With All Mirrors and Whole New Mess Angel Olsen has marked an end to the most impressive chapter of her rising career to date. Both versions have their merits as to what makes them more impressive listens, but it is proof of the quality of the albums that the conversation will be focused on their strengths rather than any obvious weaknesses. Singing about “trouble with the heart” with such delicate beauty might leave the listener emotionally drained yet should nonetheless make them utterly excited in anticipation for what the next chapter Olsen could be tinkering on as she continues her trajectory of going from strength to strength.

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