On Angel Olsen‘s breakout full-length, Half Way Home, the arrangements were simplified, if rarely simple. Guitar, bass, some percussion, all coated in a familiar country-folk dust. The range came not only in Olsen’s emotions, but also in her striking and unpredictable voice. If she was visiting heartaches and concepts of mortality we’d heard put to similar backdrops before, her cyclical structures, keen observations, and (above all) her staggering vocals range set her apart. She was a voice to pay attention to.
On the heels of that accomplishment, Olsen doesn’t repeat the formula with Burn Your Fire For No Witness. Instead, she spends this excellent album distorting and blowing out those folk textures, sometimes with control of aural space, sometimes with thick and tangles musical arrangements. The breadth of sounds here now matches the hairpin turns her voice can take, and these songs take full advantage of these new musical roads. Some let the music clash noisily with Olsen’s voice. Others spread out around her, bolstering her already powerful voice with even more energy and emotion. The pieces here fit just a bit crooked, and that constant shifting works wonders, giving us a major step forward for a young artist who proves herself here not just a voice to pay attention to, not one of potential, but one of excellence in the here and now.
According to Olsen, these songs rose out of a year of “heartbreak, travel, and transformation”, but this is not your typical set of sad songs. Instead, it’s more a record about what sad songs, what expression, can do for the sadness itself. Spare opener “Unfucktheworld” leaves dreaming behind right away, hoping instead for an end where “the trouble in my heart would only mend.” This search for healing, for an end to a past that shadows the present, works its way through these songs but doesn’t quite resolve as cleanly as you’d think. But if the album starts this search quietly, it gets big and furious on “Forgiven/Forgotten”, a full-on rock song full of guitars awash in treble and fuzz and pushed forward by the rumbling dynamic charge of the bass and drums. The guitars swirl and skronk behind Olsen as she assures her subject “I don’t know anything, but I love you” even as the vicious cycle of forgiveness swirls (or swirled) around them. The guitars and pounding rhythms reflect the frustration of that cycle, the undeniable energy of it.
“Hi-Five” is perhaps the most interesting musical piece here. Olsen begins by paraphrasing Hank Williams with the line “I feel so lonesome I could cry,” and the music twists the twang of country into a hazy buzz, a true distortion of a comforting kind of sorrow we’re used to hearing in music. But even as Olsen gives away her heart in the song, the person she gives it to feels miles away. In this way, “Hi-Five” sets up a common trope through the album, where Olsen imagines the emotional distance between people as an arid landscape, like the one from “Hi-Five” where you can faintly picture barbed tumbleweeds rolling through grainy shots of desert spaces.
The album makes much of the relationship between Olsen and this landscape, between the person and what’s around them. On the aching and brilliant “White Fire”, Olsen’s solitary guitar melts out into the negative space around it. Meanwhile, Olsen sings “I laughed so loud inside myself it all began to hurt” and you can feel that pain. Except the emotions don’t and can’t stay in. Later on, as memories come to her, Olsen admits “tears blew out my eyes,” an image that combines the sight with what’s seen, blurring the line between seer and subject, even if what she’s seeing is the past. This want to bring the inside out repeats later on “Iota”, where Olsen hopes for a world where we can “turn our bodies inside out.” On “Stars”, Olsen wants to “scream the feeling till there’s nothing left,” to bring one more internal thing out, to eradicate it.
In bringing what’s underneath to the surface, Olsen wants to both see and be seen, to convey emotion yes to make it mean something, but also to obliterate it. She’s “neither innocent nor wise when you look [her] in the eyes” on “High & Wild”, and she accuses people of blindness more than once here. Meanwhile, on “Lights Out” and elsewhere, there is darkness, an absence of light of seeing. And yet, closer “Windows” combines light and blindness, where the sun is what blinds us. This blinding, though, feels different. As Olsen wanders over cautiously warm guitar tones, “What’s so wrong with the light?” you see she’s moved towards, not necessarily closure, but this new question, not where to find the light but what to do with it when you find it.
In this entangled series of ideas about emotions and expression, about the past and its grip on us, the truly remarkable thing about Burn Your Fire For No Witness is how it questions the very nature of sad songs. Here, these songs don’t play like a performance of sadness. They seem to require no audience to create meaning. Instead, they are purely about emotions expressed by the singer. On one level, this does what we expect, gives meaning to loss and pain. But on another, these songs don’t search for catharsis or connection in these sadnesses so much as they seek to wipe them out. Olsen is not the broken voice healing on this brilliant album. It is the voice itself, in its unique power and beauty, in the careful words it shapes and sharpens, that does the breaking, the severing, the leaving behind.