After spending her formative years with Bathetic Records, where she released two albums and a couple of singles – amongst them her two years old breakthrough record Half Way Home – Angel Olsen recently signed with Jagjaguwar. Not exactly a shocker, since the label has a habit of picking up talented, unconventional, folky acts at just the right moment. Sharon Van Etten’s decisive transformation between the Ba Da Bing released Epic and her Jagjaguwar debut Tramp, is one of several fine examples, and perhaps the most obvious comparison when discussing Olsen. Even more so than Van Etten, the leap Olsen has taken between Half Way Home and Burn Your Fire For No Witness is striking, but not surprising. As reported numerous times before, she previously toured with Bonnie “Prince” Billy as part of his backing band The Babblers, where she screamed punk rock covers of Kevin Coyne and Dagmar Krause. Later, as part of Cairo Gang, she made a habit out of sounded like a reincarnation of Edith Piaf on stage. Point being, she holds far more wide-ranging influences than she revealed on Half Way Home.
Despite of being recorded in merely ten days, Burn Your Fire For No Witness is by every account her most ambitious undertaking so far. Given, the swirling intensity of stand-alone single “Sweet Dreams” hinted of a fleshier rock approach, but now with a full band at her disposal, those intentions are sizably amplified. On the punchy, early singles “Forgiven/Forgotten” and “Hi-Five”, Olsen plugged in her electric guitar, let drummer Josh Jaeger pound on the kick drum, and with the helping hands of John Congleton (Bill Callahan, St. Vincent), pushed everything far in the red.
Yet, these tracks tell only half the story. The animated punk charge of “Forgiven/Forgotten”, “Stars” or even “Hi-Five”, are springled amongst roughly a handful of slow-burners that continue to explore her familiar skeletal trajectories. This shows that Burn Your Fire For No Witness isn’t a complete overhaul of Olsen’s sound, so much as an expansion of it. Yet, even on the more fragile, peel-backed arrangements, on where the instrumental seldom mounts to more than Olsen finger-picking on her guitar, there’s a comparatively denser, amplified attentiveness to textures. While the aforementioned early singles certainly intensified my expectations of a new Olsen record, it’s these emotionally complex, slow-burners that make the album a true grower. As Olsen put it herself; “Man, sometimes I just like the song ‘Enemy’ the best”. That particular song is the quietest, and most akin to her older material, but it sounds less “odd” than any of its Half Way Home-siblings. And when heard in this context, it becomes a revelation of sort; a beautiful tale of heartache that stands out by the means of Olsen’s close-miked vocals. Even more beautiful is the seven minute “White Fire”. Over barely audibly guitar play, she delivers the most devastating lyrics of the album; “Everything is tragic, it all just falls apart/when I look into your eyes, it pieces up my heart.” Than later; “If you’ve still got some light in you then go before it’s gone. / Burn your fire for no witness/ It’s the only way it’s done.” she sings with a penetrating quiver impossible to hide from.
While it was fairly easy to see Olsen’s talent on her former album, not to mention hearing her spellbinding voice for the first time, it didn’t move me. At least not in the way Burn Your Fire For No Witness does. On here, there is a sense of directness and candor that shakes me in ways few albums do. She feels more at home on these shape-shifting, excellently sequenced compositions that sound raw, yet bleeding and open-hearted, all at once. To put it differently, and for a lack of better words, Olsen feels less “scary” and “haunting” on here, which in this case is a good thing as her melodic precision takes away some of roughest edges of her voice and makes it all the more easy to get closer to her.
There is a myriad of brilliant songwriting on here, and every track is easily told apart. Her lyrical themes might not have changed much. She still sings about toxic relationship, isolation, daydreaming, but once again, she feels much closer, perhaps even more articulate in her conversations. There’s a power to her lyrics that brings all her emotions to the surface, and when she sings “I laughed so loud inside myself it all began to hurt”, it’s easy to feel her pain. Elsewhere, she has way of challenging preconceptions about how sadness or heartache should be expressed in a song. On “Hi-Five” she begins by saying “I’m so lonely I could cry” before cheering and hi-fiving along with strangers; “are you lonely to? HIGH FIVE! So am I”. As one reviewer put it, “these songs don’t search for catharsis or connections…as they seek to wipe them out”. You could just as easily dance along “Hi-Five” without a care in the world, as you could share Olsen in her sentiment.
After living with Burn Your Fire For No Witness for the past week, I feel that at this point Olsen can do anything. It’s easy to forget that it’s a bold direction she has taken here. For most folk singer, shaking things up doesn’t come naturally. With Half Way Home she made many aware of her incredible voice – amongst the most readily recognizable voices in contemporary folk-rock – but with this album she has, in my book, a legitimate place next to Neko Case, Sharon Van Etten, Joanna Newsom and Marissa Nadler, as one of the true great female folk-rock singers of our time.