Following on from her engrossing debut album Half Way Home, Missouri-born Angel Olsen has turned things up a notch with her latest effort Burn Your Fire For No Witness. Her second record – discounting 2011’s cassette-only EP Strange Cacti – is her first with a band, working with drummer Josh Jaeger and bassist Stewart Bronaugh to push her soundscape into an entirely new territory.
As demonstrated by lead single Forgiven/Forgotten, the record sees Olsen plug in the electric guitar and move away from the skeletal acoustic sound that dominated her debut. Despite the move towards a rockier feel, Olsen continues to explore the themes of loss and loneliness that have marked her previous recordings, while her fondness for slow-burning, sparse instrumentation remains intact.
Opener Unfucktheworld is a majestic introduction to Olsen’s understated style – it also happens to be brilliantly titled. “I wanted nothing more than for this to be the end,” she almost mumbles, over a beautifully delicate, lo-fi guitar melody. It’s a bewitching start to a record that is full of intimate moments, with the production of John Congleton (Bill Callahan and St Vincent) only complementing Olsen’s world-weary melancholia.
Emotional heavyweight White Fire is another prime example of just how powerful Olsen is when she is left to her own devices. It is almost seven minutes of barely audible guitar, with the central focus on Olsen’s devastating, brooding vocal as she sings: “Everything is tragic, it all just falls apart/when I look into your eyes, it pieces up my heart.” In fact, such is the song’s sense of isolation, that just listening to it feels like an invasion of privacy.
Yet these moments of simplicity are also interspersed with brushes of thrilling punk defiance, with Olsen’s previous work with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy coming through on tracks such as Forgiven/Forgotten and second single Hi-Five. The former is a burst of intense grunge pop, with Olsen’s distorted vocal working perfectly with the raw guitar riff, while the latter is drenched in reverb, as the band aesthetic really starts to take shape.
Lights Out is further proof of the benefits the added manpower has brought to Olsen’s recording process – which saw the trio finish the record over 10 days in a deconsecrated chapel in North Carolina. Initially kicking off with a fairly laid-back guitar hook and Olsen’s wistful vocals, the song gradually builds towards a wondrous, sonic chorus, one that is surely more ambitious than anything she has attempted before.
Elsewhere, Stars revolves around an alluringly repetitive guitar hook and its partnering bassline, as Olsen sings with a hint of frustration: “I feel so much at once that I could scream/I wish I had the voice of everything.” While the slightly beefed up sound could have been gimmicky, there is a clear sense throughout the record that it was a natural progression for Olsen – one that fits her punchy vocal particularly well.
If there is a criticism to be levelled at Olsen’s return, it would be that the second half of the record does lose some of the emphasis built up in the early stages. Iota is a perfectly nice minimal effort, but it lacks the direction of many of the better tracks on the record, while Enemy doesn’t quite sound finished yet, with Olsen’s crooning vocals all that holds the track together.
However, when Olsen does get it right – as she does on the gorgeous closer Windows – the results are remarkable. Lyrically, she has never been better, with moments of sarcasm even shining through her often painfully honest musings. Yet it’s Olsen’s willingness to develop her sound that is really the most gratifying aspect of Burn Your Fire For No Witness, enticingly hinting at much more to come in the future.