Angel Olsen - Burn Your Fire for No Witness

The Chicago songwriter’s second LP dazzles with its assured composition and vulnerable honesty.

Additional Info

8.6

ALBUM: Burn Your Fire for No Witness

ARTIST: Angel Olsen

2014

Alternative

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.”

1. Unfucktheworld
Olsen’s voice sounds smoky yet crisp, as if coming from a pristine phonograph. The track walks a line in sounding timeless yet particular, with it’s thin, bassy guitar sound rolling back and forth and Olsen’s warble leading the song over the waves. At just over two minutes, it’s a brief glimpse into the minutiae of Witness’s distresses, but Olsen makes her sentiments quite clear: “I quit my dreaming the moment I found you/ I started dancing just to be around you./ Here’s to thinking it meant so much more…/ I wanted nothing more than this to be the end.” Though it’s difficult, there’s a lot more truth to uncover.8.5
2. Forgiven/Forgotten
A track that recalls all the best aspects of alt rock in the ‘90’s, Olsen successfully gives homage to The Breeders and The Amps, while crafting a track that rivals their best songs. Olsen’s tight backing band do a great job at creating a direct line to a nostalgic time that so many other contemporary acts fumble with. The song is anthemic and fun, yet steeped in the sober reminder that Nietzsche’s “eternal return” applies to crummy relationships, too.10.0
3. Hi-five
The soundtrack for a deflated pre-noon saloon session (“Sitting lonely with somebody lonely, too/ Well, there’s nothing in the world I’d rather do.”), this song has a vibe and structure reminiscent of the Saddle Creek folk revival in the early aughts. The track’s greatest strength is once again Olsen’s exposed vocal, as her voice flutters against the backing tremolo guitar. She implores for another chance at a deep connection. The chorus is foot tapping—“All I want/ All I ever need/ is someone out there who believes/ sometimes/ not always”—and provides a delicate but playful look at the fundamental bummer of feeling lonely.9.0
4. White Fire
Waltzing, picked arpeggios provide the hair-raising, solitary instrumentation. Olsen’s voice is steady; its usual vibrato is mostly absent. The verse vocals don’t stray far from notes close to one another. The singularity of the melody evokes a sorrowful, reflective mood over the driving guitar. When, about half-way through the nearly seven minute song, Olsen finally slides her breathy voice between a varying range, it’s as if we’re coming to the root of what’s ailed her for a long time. “Fierce and light and young/ When you don’t know that you’re wrong/ or just how wrong you are”. 9.5
5. High & Wild
Surf strummed guitar and mid-tempo drums allow Olsen to call out a former lover in a flaying assault. The chorus is bubbly and a tack-ish piano riff accompanies her ascending voice. Olsen crams a lot of assonant phrases into the second verse, which is in line with the playful vibe of the music. She channels Grace Slick as she sings, “I’m neither innocent or wise/ when you look me in the eyes/ you might as well be blind/ because you don’t see me anymore…/ This all would be so easier if only, if only, I had nothing more to say.” The song builds into a psychadelic attack of an ending, sounding almost petulant against the weighty lyrics. But we don’t blame her for needing to let off some steam.7.9
6. Lights Out
The song’s deepest roots are in the country ballad tradition of an Emmylou Harris. Olsen sounds transcendent bathed in reverb against the lethargic music—lazy drums and wandering bass. Olsen is trying to muster the strength to continue on against an unnamed adversary: “If you feel like quitting now/ then try a little harder/ the things we need the most/ they seem to take a little longer/ no ones going to try it for you, darling, no one.” The sentiment is in line with the rest of the album—the world beyond yourself only matters so much, as the true fire has to be intrinsic.8.2
7. Stars
A jangly, reverb guitar, brings in a prominent backbeat with a fuzzy lead and shakers. Olsen sings, “I think you like to see me lose my mind.” It’s a charged, primal scream of a song, the chorus soars: “I wish I had the voice of everything/ to scream the animals, to scream the earth/ to scream the stars out of our universe/ to scream it all back into nothingness/ to scream the feeling til there’s nothing left.” It’s an exhausting sentiment, but we’re lifted from the absolute depths by the hope of the second chorus: “To sing it all into something new/ to sing for life or myself and leaving you.” The song covers an entire cycle of emotion ad infinitum: hope, sorrow, death, hope—and somehow makes the process sound empowering.9.0
8. Iota
A quiet and lovely sounding ballad featuring strummed acoustic guitar, a sharp bassline, and brush-swept drums. The music sounds uncomplicated and pleasant. Olsen presents a wishful, contemplative narrative of an ideal world between lovers. “If all the world could see it with one eye/ in perfect color to the perfect sky.” This may sound a bit twee, but Olsen subverts the prettiness with increasingly morose (but very germane) lines: “If only we could dance our way to death” and “If only we could turn our bodies inside out.” While this track ultimately is a minor entry to the album, it still possesses an affecting power due to its susceptibility, which is a testament just to the strength of its songwriter. 7.5
9. Dance Slow Decades
After 3/4s of a subdued lament, Olsen’s band wanders into Mazzy Star territory with the layered dreamy guitar, complete with a sliding lead, and booming drums. Olsen has just sung, “Dance, because you know the song,/ I dance because I know this one,” and it’s easy to recall the ending scene of the seminal 90’s movie Angus where the protagonist is finally afforded the opportunity to dance with the girl of his dreams (to Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You”, no less)—triumphant even for a moment. The song ends without Olsen’s voice reentering the scene, which is disappointing, as it would have been quite interesting to hear her voice wrapped in such rich instrumentation.7.8
10. Enemy
A simple capoed acoustic guitar progression provides a minor backdrop for Olsen’s present but quaking voice. Free from effects, it’s a stark presentation of ruminative hurt. “I wish I could believe/ apply all the sides you’ve seen/ or you could be the only one who knows the truth of me./ And I the ugly one.” At the song’s midpoint, there’s a key change that brings the song’s true weight to light: “I wish it were the same/ as it is in my mind.” It’s another plain, but deeply poignant utterance that grounds the song in a relatable realm. Our own personal narratives often get in the way of the truth of actuality. The song ends on a particularly apt moment: “We might be older now/ but is it changing anything?” 8.7
11. Windows
The album’s closer finds Olsen harmonizing with herself in a haunting manor. The bass overtakes the guitar melody earlier on, and until Olsen repeats: “Why can’t you see?” and “Are you blind?” it’s a bit difficult to orient ourselves in the song. Despite her simple utterances, the lyrics are the most opaque here: “Won’t you open a window sometime?/ What’s so wrong with the light?” The song builds into a short dreamy pop landscape a la Dum Dum Girls, and Olsen’s ambient harmonies nearly transport us to another realm. Again, the song cuts off where it could keep going, issuing a letdown to the end of the record, but it ultimately doesn’t much hinder all the beauty that came before.8.2
Michael McDermit is an artist living in Oregon. He is a contributing member of the My Idea of Fun artist collective and currently teaches writing and literature at the University of Oregon.



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