ALBUM: Burn Your Fire for No Witness
ARTIST: Angel Olsen
Despite cynicism’s best efforts, it’s still possible for artists to create without succumbing to this era’s bored pretenses. Pieces exist where each element feels like it comes from an intrinsic place within the artist, and the work rings as honest. Witness is such a case. Each song’s release of sound is somehow cathartic and, most importantly, necessary in its particular way. The scope of mood and genre on Witness (from folk ballad to dream pop to 90’s alt rock) is the widest the singer’s ever covered, and the album finds Olsen reaching for—and often firmly grasping—the truth.
Before focusing on her own material, Olsen was part of the Will Oldham late-2000’s troupe with the likes of Matt Sweeney and Emmet Kelly; her most prominent role came on the 2011 Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy album Wolfroy Goes to Town. The union of the two singers there was sublime (listen to the haunting “Time To Be Clear” for proof), and Olsen proved to be the perfect foil to Oldham’s drizzly voice. Their songs together recalled Cash and Carter duets with an added sheen of gloom; Olsen’s somber presence seemed to coax Oldham’s playful croon into a smoother, sliding register. Olsen’s first solo album, 2012’s Half Way Home, further showcased her seriousness as a songwriter. The songs were sparse, largely composed of only her shivering vocal accompanied by minimal instrumentation. At times, it seemed like she may faint or disappear completely into the tracks. Half Way Home’s mood was chiefly singular, and a tentativeness loomed over the whole affair, as if Olsen wasn’t yet comfortable standing in the middle of the stage instead of off to the side.
Witness sustains the stark candor in Olsen’s previous work, but there’s a new confidence to these songs. These recordings present a much more lucid composer. On “Forgiven/Forgotten”—a nostalgia trip right to Kim Deal’s doorstep—Olsen continues prodding the shortcomings of humanity, though the difference that comes in the song is a nodding acceptance that was previously absent. Olsen doesn’t have an answer for the inherent shittiness of people, but instead throws her hands up with the most adulating lines in recent memory: “I don’t know anything! / I don’t know anything!/ But I love you!” It’s simple, exclamatory, but nonchalantly triumphant over the banal transgressions of which each soul is constantly guilty. We let one other down and Olsen isn’t afraid to tell us so. Acceptance of reality is a main theme of Witness, and so is the expression of forbearance. A flask-passing backbeat on the excellent “Hi-Five” constructs an enclosed confessional stall for Olsen: “I’m giving you my heart/ Are you giving me your heart?/ Are you lonely too?/ High five/ So am I.” Love may (often) lead to heartbreak, but (functioning as the sonic equivalent of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) Olsen finds it compulsory.
Similar simple, profound wisdom pervades the album through its pitch-perfect lyrics. There are a great many examples, and often, a different line emerges as particularly delectable each time through any given song. Take the frank remonstrative in “High and Wild”: “You’re gone, you’re gone/ you’re with me, but you’re gone/ a feeling once so strong/ is now an old forgotten song/ but you don’t sing so high and wild.” Or the last straw of Olsen’s empathy on “Enemy”: “Sometimes our enemies/ are closer than we think/ sometimes the ones we trust/ may have to give up listening.” In that way, Witness follows suit with Half Way Home, where lyrical gems were present but buried along the album’s foggy shores. It’s the expansion of the musical landscape around her words on Witness that makes it a more impressive work. The album achieves a difficult feat through its genre-hopping without feeling like a pastiche, or sacrificing the searing sincerity of her past output. But the hallmark here remains Olsen’s stellar vocalwork—delivered with chilling precision, while still emotive and natural. Each wavy note lingers and works its way through your body; the effect is often hypnotic. At times, particularly during the album’s solemn last quarter, it’s disorienting to be immersed in that much forthrightness. For as distinct as it is, Olsen’s voice displays a remarkable breadth between the songs’ varying modes. Throughout, there are shades of pantheonic female singers—Linda Ronstadt on “Lights Out”, Hope Sandoval on “Dance Slow Decades”, Grace Slick on “High and Wild”—though Witness displays Olsen not imitating these women, but herself ascending to their ranks.
Burn Your Fire For No Witness is a career-making album has the potential to make Angel Olsen a household name for anyone interested in intelligent singer/songwriters. That’s a rad thing to write, but an honest assessment for an uncannily honest album. The album’s title functions as an imploring battle cry: Do your thing; who cares if no one’s listening? Thankfully, we’re all very fortunate to have the opportunity.
“I am the only one now.”