American folk crooner Angel Olsen delivered one of 2014’s best releases way back in February with Burn Your Fire For No Witness, a gloriously emotional record that, despite adding heavier instrumentation and a more rock ‘n’ roll dynamic than on previous albums, still put Olsen’s voice, equipped with her signature aching vibrato and candid lyricism, centerstage. Olsen has made a name for herself as an endearingly forthright and surefooted songwriter, and though Burn Your Fire For No Witness may have been her breakout album, it was 2012’s reserved and beautiful Half Way Home that really put her on the radar as a stirring new voice in folk music. Burn Your Fire For No Witness is, in contrast, confident and bold, genre-defying, a sweeping display of genuine talent from every angle. From that perspective, it’s unbelievable how well Olsen has managed to maintain her original sense of voice and expression while emboldening it with the musical variety and range that it deserves.
It may seem too soon for a deluxe edition reissue of Burn Your Fire For No Witness, but it’s hard to disagree with five incredible bonus tracks. That the deluxe set has arrived late in the year is appropriate not only because the album is certain to get a massive boost of attention from its placement on what will surely be the majority of music publications’ year-end lists, but also because Olsen’s warm and tender music is a supreme comfort in the dark and hazy winter months. Half Way Home, in its soft passion, remains the perfect record for a nighttime snow storm; Burn Your Fire For No Witness, with its folk-rock rebellion and broad stylization, is more energetic and immediate, placing it its moments earlier in the day, when the hours are still filled with possibility and anticipation. The at once individual and complimentary tones of the two records hint at Olsen’s ability to change without abandoning her fundamental aesthetic, a balance that far too many artists fail even once to strike.
The bonus tracks are a great addition. “White Water” is the first and the most left-field of them. Olsen doesn’t often indulge in retro fetishization — a rarity for a folk artist — but “White Water” seems culled straight from the turbulent folk-rock heydey of the ‘70s, invoking something like the mystifying, driving ballads of Led Zeppelin III, or even perhaps a dark Neil Young B-side. A relentlessly pounding kick drum and feverishly strummed electric guitar reinvigorate her music with the energy of album tracks like “Hi-Five” and “Forgiven/Forgotten”, but with the delicate touch of Olsen’s more peaceful acoustic numbers. “All Right Now”, “Only With You” and “May as Well” are more typical of Olsen’s gentle, somber approach, while “Endless Road” is a more traditional folk ballad, drawing on images of wandering roads and healing hearts. For the most part, these new songs fit splendidly in Olsen’s already sonically-expansive catalog, and so the deluxe edition of Burn Your Fire For No Witness succeeds in providing even more evidence of what makes the artist an exciting and singular new voice in the indie folk scene, rather than diluting the magic of the original album.
But if the new songs are uniformly excellent, one might wonder, then why put them on a deluxe edition rather than an EP or the original record itself? The answer is that Olsen expanded her palette with Burn Your Fire For No Witness, and as beautiful and worthy as the bonus songs are, they just didn’t cohere with the evolution she was going through at that moment. Their presence on the deluxe edition is ideal because the songs deserve release, being up to Olsen’s incredibly high standards, while saving them for a follow-up record would only betray the artist’s natural evolution. For that reason, the deluxe edition of Burn Your Fire For No Witness is a no-brainer for those who have yet to experience the unbridled joy of Angel Olsen, and for everyone else, the five bonus tracks are more than deserving additions. With these new songs, Olsen has once again proven that she has impeccable taste and reliable talent to draw on, even as her songwriting and performance ability matures to even greater heights.