REVIEW: Angel Olsen - Burn Your Fire For No Witness

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Angel Olsen - Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Label - Jagjaguwar
Release Date - February 18, 2014

Burn Your Fire For No Witness opens with the understated, power chords of “Unfucktheworld.” The song unfolds in a hushed and steady gallop. Angel Olsen begins with a thinly veiled lyric about the transformative power of a previous lover. However, the song grows more interesting if the lover to which she refers is music itself. Olsen’s decision to relinquish herself to its higher power began an affair more permanent than any blood oath or vow of marriage.

    I quit my dreaming the moment that I found you
    I started dancing just to be around you
    Here’s to thinking that it all meant so much more
    I kept my mouth shut and opened up the door

Have you ever been driving in the car when your mind drifts and the weight of the day’s pressures comes crashing down while reflections of street signs deflect blindly off the edge of the windshield? As the stress mounts, we’re left muttering mantras of self-reassurance to ourselves like some kind of incoherent, babbling nutter. In “Unfucktheworld” Olsen alerts the listener that she is aware of the weight of her decision to commit wholly to her songs. The pressure that comes with the knowledge that her subsequent success or failure will rest on her ability to create is underscored in the repeated, closing line, “I am the only one now.”

Olsen’s jarring shifts in pitch and emotion in her vocals served as the signature of her early work. It’s these swings that lead dissenting commenters on NPR Music’s facebook page to clamor over her inability to sing. Listeners with a more open mind recognize those volatile moments as what makes Olsen’s voice so singular and wrought with genuine emotion. The banshee hasn’t disappeared entirely, but it’s tapered here. On “Hi-Five” she hits that register for a moment in the one-woman call-and-response of “Sometimes / Believes / Not always / Believes / Sometimes / Believes” before settling into a bluesy line on keys and a relatively straightforward R&B arrangement. Olsen delivers a broken, road-weary sincerity reminiscent of Mick Jagger on “Dead Flowers” without the feigned southern twang.

The sequencing on this LP is immaculate. Olsen achieves a balance lacking in previous albums. Every moment of dense seriousness is coupled with a moment of levity no less satisfying. She recognizes her audience’s need for release after the heft of a song like “White Fire,” following up with the jangly guitars and barroom piano lines of “High & Wild.” On Strange Cacti or Half Way Home Olsen would have continued to challenge relentlessly.  After catching some of these songs live over the last year, she too appears to revel in the lighter moments, enjoying the goofing off and straightforward rock provided by her backing band.

The early groupthink around Olsen’s work on Burn Your Fire For No Witness appears hell-bent on comparing her to Leonard Cohen. I’ll be the first to admit I’m more idle appreciator than well-versed historian of Cohen’s discography, but the comparison proves warranted. There is more than a trace of Songs of Love and Hate here, but Pitchfork’s Mike Powell was correct to point more particularly to tracks like “Avalanche” and “The Stranger Song” in his write-up of “White Fire.” If there’s any Cohen on Burn Your Fire For No Witness, it’s pre-1975 era, the stripped-down, acoustic version.

One characteristic Cohen and Olsen share is their disdain for the verse / chorus / verse / chorus structure of traditional rock and pop. In fact, Burn Your Fire For No Witness is nearly devoid of a chorus altogether.  Yet, both singers are able to bring the listener in with the rhythm of their words. Olsen structures the verses to prevent the songs from devolving into free verse or poetry. The repetition of individual lines on tracks like “Forgiven/Forgotten” allows her to create emphasis and the illusion of a chorus without working within the confines of traditional pop structure.

“Stars” kicks off the album’s b-side. It’s an epic track in every sense of the word. As much as I realize every ski bum on a bender has bastardized that word into oblivion, it nevertheless proves perfectly justified. Here, Olsen envisions herself as a goddess with the power to obliterate and create civilization with the strength of her voice. No small potatoes, nor is it intended to be. Burn Your Fire For No Witness is Olsen’s most overtly ambitious album to date, at every level. The switch to Jagjaguwar and the requisite PR push that such a move demanded left no room for excuses. She reached for the “Stars.” She called her shot, delivered the home run and now we get to watch as she trots triumphantly around the bases.


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