A year of travelling, and all the heartbreak that comes from sacrificing a sedentary lifestyle, changes any empathetic person. Although usually muted in her physical expressions, lyrically, Angel Olsen has always registered highly on the emotional scale. Such is no different on her second album, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, her first on Jagjaguwar Records. Musically, however, her creative fire only grows.
Despite being fond of the “charming,” “pure” quality of lo-fi recording – or at least still understanding its appeal – Olsen has gradually moved on from the homemade sound: “I wasn’t trying to hide my songs behind something,” she told Chart Attack as far back as 2012.
This ambition comes to the fore right away with Burn Your Fire‘s first single, the kick-drum-powered “Forgiven/Forgotten”. Never mind clarity – she’s never rocked so hard. The dusty “High & Wild” could shake down a live venue; its pianos would twinkle through the rubble.
Despite other details such as the psych-folk lope of “Lights Out”, and the rain-running-through-the-gutters cymbals and rattling percussion on “Stars”, the songs on Burn Your Fire For No Witness are minimal enough that you can imagine how they would sound if Olsen played them by herself. It helps the imagination that she hasn’t fully abandoned low fidelity. Her songs retain some obscurity, and thus an air of mystery. “Unfucktheworld” begins the album in this vein, her voice ghostly, self-harmonized. Not only do songs such as “Unfucktheworld” feel like “Angel Olsen” at their cores; some of them sound like Angel Olsen all around: the almost Gothic, protracted, finger-picked “White Fire”; the delicately strummed “Enemy”.
Olsen’s clearer recording illuminates her fuller arrangements and more diverse instrumentation, but they sometimes distract from her subject matters, which remain generally bleak, even though her voice always rises to the top. Notably on “Hi-Five”, a broken country rock song with sooty acoustic guitars mixed with electric guitars that buzz as much as they twang – there’s even some clunky piano behind it all – she sings lonesome cowgirl blues: “I feel so lonesome, I could cry. But instead, I’ll pass the time, sittin’ lonely with somebody lonely too. … Are you lonely too? Are you lonely too? Hi-five! So am I!”
Elsewhere, Angel Olsen sounds more defeated: “If only we could always stay the same. We’d close our doors, and then we’d go to bed. We’d never have to do it all again,” she sings on “Iota”. But the Angel Olsen we hear on Burn Your Fire For No Witness seems to have embraced change just fine. And her artistry, and personal character, are more enriched for it.