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Angel Olsen’s Stark, Fraught ‘Burn Your Fire for No Witness’ Is Equal Parts Heat and Smoke

Angel Olsen / Photo by Zia Anger
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: February 18, 2014
Label: Jagjaguwar

Angel Olsen buries a thesis statement at the end of her third album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness. On “Window,” over a barely audible kick drum and the sparsest of chords, she sings, “We live our shadows down / It’s how we get around,” pushing her voice up to the limits of her register; for hymnal resonance, an organ accompanies the subsequent order, “Open a window sometimes / What’s so wrong with the light?” In case no one misses the point, the full band supports the track’s crawl toward an uncertain clarity.

She could be addressing a lover or a friend. Herself, too. Unyielding and stalwart in its devotion to the verities of confessional, folk-tinged balladry, No Witness is a difficult album to play unless you’re ready to accept Olsen’s self-questioning pinpricks. The arrangements go from here to there, no directions needed, trusting in former colleague Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s purportedly spontaneous methods. On a couple of songs (see “Iota”), her melodies leave the admissions stranded, and she isn’t a resourceful enough singer to make them signify; she evokes Daniel Johnston without the weirdness that was its own therapy. But whenever a drummer joins in after an electric rhythm strum, the album accepts a propulsion that in this context feels transgressive.

Inhabiting the wronged-woman role with an orneriness steeped in folk and as noise-friendly as punk, Olsen and producer John Congleton nevertheless bifurcate her album into overwrought ballads and fraught rockers — for the sake of variety, she could have scrambled things. Thanks to Olsen’s trembling, high, prissy-around-sibilants delivery, the opener “Unfucktheworld” creaks and terrifies like a silver-dagger ballad unearthed by Joan Baez, two chords of doom played into infinity. She started dancing to be around him, she admits, but no one will believe it. Here, the dancing starts on “Forgiven/Forgotten,” which punches like a Breeders song circa Title TK. Those fuzzy guitars and pounding drums renounce ambiguity; “I don’t know anything / But I love you,” Olsen sings, in a timbre suggesting she knows many things, but not that she loves him/her/herself. Thanks to distortion and a cowpunk lilt, “Hi-Five” blames this nameless person while Olsen appropriates the voice of Sally Timms, the Mekons singer who compensated for the erosion of her high end by inhabiting her characters with a sureness no Meryl Streep can touch.

The songs on Burn Your Fire for No Witness are too bruised to worry about salvation, defined by Olsen as the cessation of an unrelenting loneliness, which the album distills to bits of gnomic wisdom. “Sometimes our enemies are closer than we think,” she sings on “Enemy.” A few lines later: “We might be older now / But is it changing anything?” Adopting a Kristin Hirsh cadence for “Stars,” she closes her eyes and leaves the world, but would stay for just “your” smile. This equivocation can result in music at war with itself; here, it sounds compromised. A Conor Oberst would force the audience to accept or dismiss one of his ridiculous scenarios; Hersh would buttress or, when the mood suited her, undercut the lyrical semaphores with a guitar line of unexpected ferocity. But when she depletes her stock of declarative phrases, Olsen has little to say about these mercurial emotional swings except that she’s feeling them. Or unprepared to commit to them.

Still, the good songs on Burn Your Fire for No Witness suggest Olsen is figuring out how to sound — how to resound, actually. More tracks like “Hi-Five,” please: more John Prine records, more distortion, more howling. A voice this committed to vacillations needs the spooks.