William Faulkner, during a speech at the Nobel Prize banquet in 1950, emphasized the importance of writing about “The human heart in conflict with itself.” He went on to say that it was “the only thing that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” Angel Olsen seems to have taken this mantra to heart. On her latest album, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, she seems to constantly be doing battle with her feelings. It’s an album that largely deals with leaving things behind, cutting ties, and pros and cons of being alone. There’s a profound feeling of disappointment, but also fear of loneliness and regret. Through it all, Olsen seems assured in her choices, regardless of how much her, or the narrator, seems to think back on the causes. Olsen has also refined her style, expanding on her folk country standards, including more upbeat and country inspired tracks. It’s an album filled with exploration of a larger sound, but manages to stay close to the artist’s roots as well.
The first thing a listener will notice when listening to Olsen’s work is her voice. She often times sounds vulnerable, but there is power in her voice that truly is unique to her in the current music world. She largely utilizes a speak-song style, but when needed pulls out a trembling country style that is almost overpowering. She can seemingly switch up her vocal style at will at this point, and it gives her the ability to change the meaning of a song simply by whether she sounds serious, sarcastic, sad, or lonesome. This gives her a leg up on many of the alt-country artists currently active, as she has vocals chords that seem explicitly made for this kind of music.
If you were a fan of Olsen’s previous album, Halfway Home, one of the first things you will notice in the early goings of Burn Your Fire is the pace. Where Olsen largely relied on an acoustic guitar and her voice on her previous work, there is a much more distinct level of composition on her latest. There are still songs that showcase her voice, but when you first hear tracks like “Forgiven/Forgotten” and “Hi-Five,” it’s obvious that there are more moving pieces on this album than what she has ever utilized before. The two songs mentioned also constitute some of the best work on the album. “Forgiven/Forgotten” seems to be the crux of the narrative, as Olsen seems to forgive the trespasses of her significant other again and again, against her better judgment. This sets up much of the rest of the album, which deals with her waffling about the decision to leave the person. The conflict lies here, in a decision that seems to magnify in size with each new song, and even after the decision is made the regret and over-thinking permeates throughout the album.
The fact that the album starts out with such a fast pace gives a somewhat heightened expectation for the rest of the album. Olsen largely deals in folk and alt-country that is sparse and isolated, and this new repertoire seems to have given her a little more leeway. The addition of Joshua Jaeger on drums and Steward Bronaugh on bass really helps to fill out the sound on many songs. Even beyond the faster pace, it has allowed her to add changes in tone and tempo to songs that might feel bland without them. This effect is best seen on “Lights Out,” which starts very simple with Olsen controlling the song, but these new additions allow her to build the song out with flourish. It all gives her another layer to work with, and seems to have made her music that much more charismatic.
This isn’t to say that she can’t do her old style anymore either. One of the more scathing songs on the album is “White Fire,” which almost wholly relies on just guitar and vocals. There is certainly a place for songs like “White Fire” on any album, but it’s dangerous to fill an album with just songs of its ilk. Olsen has done a good job realizing that, and it bodes well for her continued evolution as an artist that even the addition of something as simple as drums and bass makes her music grow and evolve in leaps and bounds.[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/132199087″ params=”color=3d3b6d&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_artwork=true” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]
It’s easy to see that the heart of Burn Your Fire For No Witness is in conflict with itself. There is agony and introspection, small moments of remembrance and regret, hatred and forgiveness, but also strength. It’s an album that shows new depths for an artist who still has room to grow. It has its moments of quiet power, but isn’t afraid to revel in its country ancestry. Though it lacks in ambition, it’s confidant in the world it has built. It relies on the singular force of its creator’s voice, and that voice is one that will only get stronger.
Review by Justin Owlett. Follow him on Twitter at @justowle.