In truth, Angel Olsen’s last album, the impressive Half Way Home, was released under the radar without much notice. For most people, myself included, discovery of Olsen’s talent came not in the shape of that album, but in the experience of her hypnotic live show. As a result, that album became highly acclaimed in retrospect, but Olsen has remained for the most part a talent hidden from the wider world. That is something that is clearly about to change as Olsen’s new album, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, out tomorrow through Jagjaguwar (a label that is used to crossover successes), is a startling growth of a record that demands a larger audience.
As on her previous release, the highlight here again is that extraordinary and versatile voice. On the likes of “Lights Out” and especially “Hi-Five,” Olsen sounds like an old-school country singer, with the latter song even going so far as to open with the words “I feel so lonesome I could cry” over a playful swing before the artist drops one of the album’s best lyrics in “Are you lonely too? High five, so am I.” At other times, the quiet, acoustic voice from Half Way Home returns, never more compellingly than on “White Fire,” a near-seven-minute-long, low-key epic that finds Olsen armed with nothing more than her guitar and a quiet magnetism, letting the song unfold in a way that contrasts sharply with the zip of the album’s opening three tracks.
The big changes on Burn Your Fire For No Witness occur in the songs that are fleshed out with a full band. “Forgiven/Forgotten,” the album’s terrific lead single, had already served notice that Olsen would be backed at times by a grungy, lo-fi rock sound that completely suits her voice. It gives her a chance to deliver lines like “You might as well be blind because you don’t see me anymore” with a kind of controlled fierceness that is even more impactful than some of the more spectacular vocal gymnastics of her previous work. That theme of repressed anger recurs on “Stars,” another mid-tempo song that is driven by an undercurrent of anger. When she sings, “I feel so much at once that I could scream,” you might find yourself urging her to, and I’m fairly sure that there is an alternate universe in which Olsen is fronting a ferocious punk band.
For the most part, the pacing on Burn Your Fire For No Witness is immaculate. There is the odd flat note, most notably on closer “Windows,” which is pretty but inconsequential and somewhat bland compared to the songs it follows. That is a rarity, though, on an album that benefits mostly from the fact that on this occasion Olsen’s voice completely serves the songs, rather than the other way ’round. Some may miss the otherworldliness and looser arrangements of her older material, but this is a tighter and more focused artist delivering a mission statement.
For all of its qualities, Burn Your Fire For No Witness feels like a transitional album. Whereas that term is normally used as a cautionary compliment, I mean it as quite the opposite. This is a special songwriter and vocalist coming to fruition, finding her feet with a new sound, and as good as this album is, I suspect her best work is yet to come. She has an excellent album to go with her show-stopping performances, and I doubt anything Olsen does from here on in will go under the radar.
Pick up tickets to Angel Olsen’s forthcoming show at the Echoplex on March 2nd.
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