After exercising her vocal and songwriting talents with the Strange Cacti EP, full-length Half Way Home, and a stint in Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s touring band, Angel Olsen has released Burn Your Fire for No Witness. The sophmore album proves that Olsen has branched out immensely from the quiet folk of her earlier work. Burn Your Fire borrows a number of cornerstones from 90s alt-rock, but retains the lyrical and structural turns that made her quieter work so exciting. The album is Olsen’s debut for Jagjaguwar, a big jump from smaller indie label Bathetic.
Opening track “Unfucktheworld” comes off as a bittersweet lament to an ex-lover, and is musically similar to the material on Half Way Home: sparse, acoustic guitar and haunting vocals. Olsen is brutally honest about her feelings in the lyrics, with lines like “I quit my dreaming the moment that I found you, I started dancing just to be around you…here’s to thinking that it all meant so much more, I kept my mouth shut and opened up the door”. The track ends with a melancholy refrain, as Olsen repeats “I am the only one now, you may not be around”.
Both fidelity and dynamics turn around on the album’s second track “Forgiven/Forgotten”. It’s a heavier grunge-influenced song that is abrasive and unlike anything else Olsen has released. The loud/quiet formula carries the rest of the record, but these elements don’t cross paths at all in the span of a single song. To that point, each individual track could be viewed as its own genre exercise. One minute, Olsen is channelling gritty, upbeat country-rock on “Hi-Five” (complete with the lyrical cliches of the genre: “I feel so lonesome I could cry”). The next, she’s quietly fingerpicking a Leonard Cohen-esque dirge with “White Fire”. On the latter, you get the sense that it’s just Olsen and the microphone, a jarring contrast to the tracks that feature the full group, electric guitars and all.
Burn Your Fire does not break the indie-rock mold, but it is exciting to hear Olsen working outside of her comfort zone. The album will be especially rewarding to listeners who spent a lot of time with Half Way Home, but just as enjoyable for newcomers.