Feb 18, 2014

Music Review: "Burn Your Fire For No Witness" by Angel Olsen

By Rron Karahoda

Every time I listen to Angel Olsen, everything about her grabs me in unknown ways, as though it is the first time I’m listening to her. Her beautiful quivering ‘folk’ voice, somehow inherited from the masters of yore is so astounding that it keeps you at attention. Burn Your Fire For No Witness is her first album after signing with Indiana indie rock label Jagjaguwar and thankfully they’ve had the presence of mind to keep most of Olsen’s aesthetic alive.

As with all recent indie albums, her sound has been cleaned up to take out a certain amount of grit, and Olsen herself is a little more on-key but it’s hard to tell if that has affected her personal charm at all. The opening lyric of the whole album is “I quit my dreaming the moment that I found you, I started dancing just to be around you. Here’s to thinking that it meant so much more.” and it sticks out as the thesis of Burn Your Fire. This is to say that the whole album is stripped down. The energy is there and it has you closing your eyes in a desperate attempt to squeeze out every last moment but her yodeling and other personal flairs are gone (Such as the uneven yet ringing strumming against her wailing voice in “Drunk and with Dreams”) and in its fullness of sound I become tiresome of just how full of sound every moment has become. This is a larger issue in and of itself, and has more to do with producers than I think it has to do with Olsen herself. However, it seems that Olsen has ‘quit dreaming’ and is focusing her efforts squarely on her message and less so on exuding a raw and ‘organic’ aura. In an album as introspective and cathartic as this, lyrical weight is everything and in this respect Olsen truly delivers.

Thankfully no matter how much you muzzle Olsen, she manages to bite at you, such as on “Forgiven/Forgotten”; the song itself is caustic, the music as punchy as the production values will allow, and Olsen is distressed. The song is built around the idea of, well, forgive and forget, but there’s a strange peculiarity to it. Normally, to forget in this instance would really mean to let go and move on, as it were. At the height of the song, after telling us quite firmly that she’s made up her mind and that she’s wasted her time she come out and says “But I love you”. It goes against the whole idea, but every one of us can understand. Sometimes you don’t let go. You might not really know, and you don’t necessarily need to dive back into something that could be hurtful but you can almost hear Olsen smiling when she says this. Just the feeling is enough to make her feel okay, and she doesn’t ask her counterpart to reciprocate, only if they will forgive her “a thousand times through” for loving them. The whole sequence of events isn’t clear, but it’s as orderly as the feelings that accompany it tend to get and there is a power to her voice when she unveils her decision. It’s all we need to understand, in an ineffable manner that Olsen manages to reproduce time and time again. It’s that skill and insight that keeps Olsen apart from her contemporaries and grips you in places that you don’t expect.

On “Hi-Five” she captures how awkward and endearing it is to encounter another lonely soul. The requirement is that you be so fundamentally lonely that although you imagine sharing your heart with someone else and hope that it will bring you peace, it is realized in a little hi-five. It is physically having two worlds collide, and they could become closer but the other remains unknowable. Although she is stuck with you, she cannot tell if you are opening up to her, or whether you will “sometimes believe”. This same sense of profound separation rears its head in “White Fire”, which carries the name of the album within its lyrics. This song is sparse in sound, and is the most like the Olsen that we know and yet it is ironic. It is a humorless irony, because we find ourselves in lyrics that say,

“But I guess we're always leaving even when we look the same
and it eases me somehow to know that even this will change”

This is after she’s told us that her eyes have blown out from crying, which itself was caused by a return to her own memories and induced a yearning for something familiar. The breadth of this song is astounding. Olsen has conjured up humanity’s difficult and traumatic relationship to change. We are like a fire, always consumed and never knowing whether to hold onto our flame or let it glow alight with ideas or newer versions of ourselves. Olsen’s answer is beautiful, defensive, and utterly human. Her answer is to do both but not in so many words, of course.

While I miss the quirks of her voice and the wildness found in “Sweet Dreams”, Olsen’s newest album is a monolith unto itself.

Grade: A

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