Review Summary: Won't you open a window sometime?
“I think you like to see me lose my mind,” ruminates Angel Olsen on “Stars”, the centerpiece of Jagjaguwar’s latest contribution to indie rock’s wrecked-torch oeuvre, Burn Your Fire for No Witness
. “You treat me like a child; I’m angry, blind/I feel so much at once that I could scream.” Lyrically, the song treks a landscape that has long since been worn thin by the legions of guitar-toting troubadours already out there, but emotionally, Olsen’s performance has enough heft in it to stop any unsuspecting listeners dead in their tracks. We may be mere spectators to the American singer-songwriter’s downward spiral, but the experience is one that threatens to be every bit as harrowing and life-affirming as watching a high-stakes drama unfold live on national television. “Stars” itself is a fine example of the dichotomy that exists at the very heart of Burn No Fire for No Witness
: Olsen can’t decide whether she wants to make peace with the world or set it alight, and it is her constant grappling with that dilemma that makes the record such an engaging listen.
For the uninitiated, Angel Olsen is a Chicago-based folk and indie rock singer and guitarist who originally hails from St. Louis, Missouri. She first earned her musical chops as a backing singer and guitarist with both Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Emmett Kelly’s The Cairo Gang before deciding to chart a path of her own as a solo recording artist. The kitchen-recorded Strange Cacti
EP (2010) marked the first time that she appeared on the radars of tastemakers across the country, while Half Way Home
(2012), her debut long player, built upon that auditory palate and quickly crystallized the petite brunette into a growing concern. Burn Your Fire for No Witness
is Olsen’s second studio full-length and, more significantly, also marks her first release as part of a full band. But while the paradigm shift that comes with transitioning from being an individual performer to a cog of some greater machine is often a difficult one, you wouldn’t be able to tell that from the way Burn Fire for No Witness
manages to hold itself together at the seams. Much of that has to do with the due diligence applied by Olsen’s two new acquisitions, drummer Josh Jaeger and bassist Stewart Bronaugh; as Olsen herself explained to Jagjaguwar, “Most people who want to collaborate with you just say, 'let's jam' and don't really listen to the music. But the only way to know if someone is seriously interested is if they've done their own research and know the material – Josh definitely took that initiative.”
Of bassist Stewart Bronaugh, she has this to say: “[Josh] introduced me to Stewart, who just so happens to be a really great singer, writer and a really great guitarist…it is very much a band and I feel like I'm merging into this entity that they're also creating.” Once again, “Stars” functions as a case in point: across a blistering four and a half minutes, the track vacillates between the realm of jangly, make-believe grunge, spectral indie, and visceral, anthropomorphic pop. However, its best moments take place in the chorus, when Jaeger kicks the song into high gear and allows both Olsen and Bronaugh to careen away on the back of a tightly-wound verse whose entire ethos is based on unstoppable momentum and a visceral, thrilling groove: “To scream the animals, to scream the Earth!” cries the American singer-songwriter, as the song trundles by her like a steam locomotive. Then there are songs like “Hi-Five” or “Dance Slow Decades”, the former a gritty grunge-pop anthem that derives much of its strength from the callous air with which the three-piece tackle the subject of devastating loneliness, the latter a smoky jam that slinks delightfully in and out of focus before dissolving in a haze of cascading drums and oscillating reverb. “Dance slow decades toward the sun – even when you’re the only one,” croons Olsen soothingly towards the tail end of the latter track, seemingly undaunted by the chasm of time opening up at her feet.
Lyrically, there are a bevy of quotable quotes strewn across the album’s acreage, with songs like “Unfucktheworld” and “Lights Out” providing the biggest amount of exposition on the subject of Olsen’s worldly conundrum. “I quit dreaming the moment that I found you,” she sighs on the former, “Here’s to thinking that it all meant so much more.” Elsewhere, “Lights Out” is coloured with the sort of tentative optimism that can make even the most crushing of defeats feel like a meaningful victory: “Some days all you need is one good thought strong in your mind,” realizes Olsen, and you begin to feel the scales of fate slowly tipping in her favour once again. Then there’s “Enemy”, which builds on the fatalistic air of preceding songs like “Iota” and “Dance Slow Decades” to open with an undercurrent of denial – “I need advice, it’s true/But I won’t hear it from you” – before eventually recovering enough of itself to admit that it needs help from the most unexpected of sources (“Sometimes our enemies are closer than we think”). You get an overall sense of wisdom from lines such as these, a sense of otherworldly intelligence and understanding that belies their creator’s relatively tender years, and it’s hard not to come away feeling thoroughly impressed.
But while the American singer-songwriter might not have a concrete lyrical opinion on the world, her vision for the sound that she wanted to carry on Burn Your Fire for No Witness
is as clear as day. Olsen’s early recordings tended to verge on the lo-fi end of the spectrum, and while the deliberate degradation in recording quality frequently added an element of authenticity to proceedings, it also created a mild disconnect between her and her patrons – a huge potential hazard for an artist whose reductive approach to poetry was often accompanied by nothing more than an acoustic guitar. "I was trying to take a little bit of what I learned from [my] early records," says Olsen of her initial aim with her sophomore record, "And I thought maybe some space around guitar and a little bit of space on drums would sound cool." Indeed, Burn Your Fire for No Witness
’ eleven songs benefit greatly from the heightened sense of clarity afforded by the more spacious arrangements. On “Unfucktheworld”, for instance, you can actually hear residual echoes from the strings on Olsen’s guitar and grasp the vast emptiness of the room that the American is performing in. And then, when Olsen’s voice finally peers out from under the slightly-muted instrumental murk, it is like sunlight gradually appearing through cracks in the alabaster wall; the entire concoction hits like an electric jolt to the senses. Personally, I keep being brought back to that old hissing gramophone which opens Brand New’s Daisy
and the crunching transition that follows; much like Jesse Lacey’s unknown female protagonist, Olsen’s also saying goodbye to the ground.
Which sort of brings us neatly onto “Windows”, the stratospheric final song on Burn Your Fire for No Witness
. A mere few seconds into the track, Olsen lets out a simple quaver, “We live and throw our shadows down/It’s how we get around”, and it’s fitting that she should choose to close out her crowning musical achievement to date with a rumble of determination that both promises so much and concedes so little. “What’s so wrong with the light?” she muses a heartbeat later, and there's no reason to disagree.