opinion by PETER TABAKIS < @ptabakis >
The act of purging emotion through song is the least expensive form of therapy. Depending on the talent of the songwriter, results can vary from utter dreck to great art. When Angel Olsen exorcises her demons through melody, the outcome typically comes just within reach of the latter. On “Stars,” one of many highlights off her new album Burn Your Fire for No Witness, she sings “I feel so much at once that I could scream.” And she sure follows through, figuratively at least (her instrument never reaches a true holler), over and over again, “till there’s nothing left.” Olsen’s voice, so vital and searing, if still relatively fresh, enters a long and storied chorus of singer-songwriter confessionals with confidence and, at times, with triumph too.
Burn Your Fire for No Witness, the second LP by the Missouri-born artist, aims to be a creative jump, her breakout work. Olsen’s solid 2012 debut Half Way Home and her 2010 EP Strange Cacti were hushed, sung-into-your-ear affairs (sometimes to a fault). Her new songs, however, are mostly assertive and full-bodied. Producer John Congleton – who has worked with a long roster of indie regulars such as The Walkmen and St. Vincent – sands down Olsen’s spiny edges and layers her compositions with session musicians and vocal overdubs. The product can be marvelous, riotous even. All the while – and this is crucial – Congleton’s flourishes never overpower Olsen’s impressive songwriting skills and expressive vocal execution, which remain the central draw of these eleven songs.
At its finest, Burn Your Fire for No Witness nimbly mixes strummed acoustic intensity with fuzzy garage-rock verve. I grasp for a less obvious example, but my mind frequently (and stubbornly) returns to Liz Phair’s early days (minus the sexual bombast), as a distant sonic ancestor, whenever Burn Your Fire hums at full power. Its first half is comprised of smartly balanced and sequenced duos. Thorny folk opener “Unfucktheworld” is followed by the breathless and clattering “Forgiven/Forgotten.” Reverb-heavy country vamp “Hi-Five” counters the winding and gorgeous dirge “White Fire.” Jangling rave-up “High and Wild” cedes to the transcendent electric ballad “Lights Out.” “Stars” caps the album’s nearly flawless, seven-song run with crashing drama and a splendid, organ-fueled chorus.
Angel Olsen and John Congleton prove a natural match, one reminiscent of the intricacy Jon Brion brought to Fiona Apple’s sophomore release. If anything, they don’t go far enough and stop just shy of complete overhaul. What a shame. The album’s stripped-down latter section can be frustratingly listless and dull. What ought to have been a grand climax instead grinds Burn Your Fire to a catatonic halt. The undercooked trio of “Iota,” “Dance Slow Decades,” and “Enemy,” throwbacks to her earlier sound, find Olsen at her most naked, but also at her most self-indulgent. There isn’t a single hook among them to rescue the listener from the numbing ordeal of repetitive fretwork.
Burn Your Fire’s magnificent, and yet unassuming, closer “Windows” rescues the album with a single swoop. It also provides a glimpse of how shattering Olsen can be when a well-wrought melody meets unadorned lyricism. “Windows” synthesizes the best of what’s come before it, by which I mean every song Angel Olsen has recorded, ever. And it only took a light touch: an aching vocal delivery, some haunting overdubs, a descending ostinato guitar lick, a few organ chords, a snare-drum crescendo. Her string of questions (“What’s so wrong with the light…why can’t you see…are you blind?”)add up to a devastating plea, one that could be directed at a lover or to the world at large. It’s a stinging indictment of evasion, of purposely ignoring all the good that stands squarely in front of one’s nose.
For as commanding and affecting Burn Your Fire for No Witness can be while it plays, the album remains elusive when trying to call it to mind later. I’d be the first person to fault myself, the feeble critic, for not giving Olsen and her work the time to make an imprint on my fossilized brain. But if the album hasn’t made a discernible impact in almost two months – the length of time I’ve spent listening to it at this point – it never will. And so the onus falls back on Olsen. Burn Your Fire for No Witness may be her breakout album and I hope it is. Angel Olsen deserves a larger audience. Check back in a week – I may still remember why. B