Monday, February 17, 2014

Angel Olsen goes electric on "Burn Your Fire For No Witness"

If you've seen Angel Olsen's recent appearance on NPR's Tiny Desk Concert series, or any live performance of hers, you know how stoic and intense her demeanor can be while she's singing.  Her eyes rarely break contact with the floor, and her quiet concentration gives off the impression that she's performing in a bubble, only occasionally aware that there's an audience around her.  It's a presence that was fitting for the material on her debut album, Half Way Home, whose stark beauty seemed specifically crafted for solitary reflection.  Olsen does that kind of delicate, moody folk so well that you could easily imagine an alternate universe where she just keeps doing that on album after album.  But there's also another side to her that comes out in between the songs in that Tiny Desk Concert video, one that indicates a much less dour person hiding behind her tortured persona.  With that in mind, it's not nearly as surprising that she's recharted her course for her sophomore effort, delivering Burn Your Fire For No Witness, an album that's coursing with a vibrant, livewire energy.

Okay, this isn't the "Dylan goes electric" of the 21st century -- Half Way Home wasn't exactly a wholly acoustic album, but Burn Your Fire busts Olsen's sound wide open in a way that feels like a completely new terrain for her.  The album is packed with jagged guitars and a full rhythm section, usually doled out in three minute bursts.  It's not completely devoid of her old sound -- the moody, simmering "White Fire" is one of the best songs on the record and feels like it'd be just as at home on her previous one -- but this time around, the traces of her roots are swaddled by songs with cutting riffs.  This doesn't just feel like an artist trying on a new style and seeing how it fits either; a song like "High & Wild" gets downright boozy, and does so with aplomb.  Her classic rock stylings can be traced back to the chorus of Half Way Home's "The Waiting," but they're only fully realized here on "Hi-Five."  And this bigger sound does nothing to drown out her distinctive voice, which is still terrific.  Her quavering vibrato can have a delicate vulnerabilty to it, but also be commanding and powerful.

The sound may be livelier, but Burn Your Fire's lyrical content plumbs the soul just as Half Way Home did.  "High & Wild" is a swaggering bar rock song, but with Olsen lamenting "I feel so lonesome I could cry" in the very first line.  In fact, loneliness is a recurring theme throughout the entire album.  "I am the only one now," she sings repeatedly on "Unfucktheworld," and she recommends dancing "even if you're the only one" on "Dance Slow Decades."  Even the title Burn Your Fire For No Witness evokes a sense of isolation.  Emotionally, the album exists at the poles, feeling lonesome one second and feeling so much all at once that she could scream the next.

But those lyrics about loneliness belie the fact that this is ultimately a positive album.  There's a willful independence that's galvanizing in lines like "If you've still got light in you, then go before it's gone / Burn your fire for no witness, it's the only way it's done."  It's a record that's secretly all about hopes and dreams and desires.  There's no better evidence of that than "Iota," where Olsen speaks in "if only"s that could turn things around.  "If only we could stay the same," she wishes at one point, but the rest of the album embraces change, exploring how stasis can be ruinous.  Album ender "Windows" clinches that idea, imploring somebody else (a lover? a friend? us?) to try having a brighter disposition.  It's a song about avoiding the darkness and putting the past behind you on an album about just trying to make it through the day, a relationship, or life.  When you think about it, the electrified sound of Burn Your Fire For No Witness just serves to reflect those ideas.  After all, as she says, "what's so wrong with a little light"?

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