Angel Olsen doesn’t run from her experiences. She buckles down and finds inspiration in them, channeling whatever unrequited emotions there are into song. It’s not an altogether groundbreaking technique, but one that she’s grown with for several years now. On her newest album Burn Your Fire for No Witness (her first with Jagjaguwar) she gathers what she’s learned, takes a deep breath, and makes that all important leap forward.
The familiar motif of heartache and loss is along for the ride, but instead of dwelling on it like so many artists are prone to do she pushes past it, making this more about hope and redemption than despair. Producer John Congleton and bandmates Josh Jaeger (drums) and Stewart Bronaugh (bass) create a significant amount of depth and texture, providing Olsen with miles of new terrain to explore. And because of that she’s able to zero in on her emotions with fine detail. It’s like she’s writing for one person, fusing intimacy and familiarity into one.
At 11 songs the narrative arc couldn’t be better. She goes from heartbroken and shattered to being empowered – ready for whatever lies next. The theme is monochromatic, yes, but the different hues and shades make it beautiful in its own right like a wild rain storm that ends with a rainbow. The point she’s trying to make is that when it comes to getting through adversity, small steps are paramount. And the space in between – the ones that bind those steps together – is a better place than any to gather yourself and give your emotions the time they need to recover.
Opening with an insurmountable feat like unscrewing an already screwed world is about as easy as putting toothpaste back in the tube. But with a lonely guitar and a broken heart, not only does she manage to make that first turn, but she does it in a way that gives even the hopeless a fighting chance:
Pain boils over into anger in an attempt to smother the heartache away. The urgent riffing and vigorous pace helps load her gun to which she fires a round of sarcastic bullets. Unfortunately, the pain is strong as it sways back and forth in her mind cracking at her core like Newton’s Cradle: [LISTEN]
Opening the skies with an old electric guitar and a helluva lot of reverb, an anguished voice emerges – tethered tightly to loneliness and with a grand ambition in mind. It begins with an innocent question and ends with a simple gesture, leading to a connection that eclipses age, race and gender:
The purge continues with a recollection of past transgressions. The instrumentation is subtle and distant, which gives her vocals an appropriately gentle, but frigid touch like a fresh blanket of snow. There’s nowhere to run, and when cornered her lyrics shine with an iridescent strength: [LISTEN]
Words tend to come up short when they’re needed most, and Olsen is not immune. It’s not quite like Costanza and the shrimp incident, but enough a fail to leave a long and lasting impression. Luckily she does what any good writer would do in this situation: she writes herself to victory:
A well needed emotional interlude from what so far has been a heart wrenching journey. The minimal instrumentation is still firmly in pace as is the vocals, but just when the darkness is about to consume the narrative a burst of clarity comes through and saves the day. It’s the first step towards salvation:
An emotional arc is taking place and what was once a devastating blow is now a minor flesh wound. The quiver in Angel’s voice has faded, the instrumentation has picked up – particularly the percussive side – and while she’s not completely out of the woods yet, she has managed to survive the worst:
There’s an air of Antonio Carlos Jobim here that makes it seem like Olsen was transported to early ’70s Brazil. That bulbous bassline, her wispy voice and that sunset in Rio type riffing could have easily found its way onto Stone Flower. It’s a lost memory hand dipped in fluttering nostalgia:
A total breakdown of the ego done in a way that turns a whisper into a roar. The vocals coagulate with the rich acoustics, giving the lyrics the type of depth and texture it needs to help resonate in the mind. The verses flow freely and culminate when a newfound source of empowerment is discovered:
Olsen brings the pace down to a slow crawl, and what sounds like a lullaby is actually a sharp blade carving up whatever is left of a crumbling relationship. It’s never easy, and after it’s all said and done the best thing that can happen is that it ends in gentle whispers rather than primal screams:
Redemption song, a chance to make amends with the past and move on a better person. And what’s been a pretty bleak album actually turns out to be a story about hope. It was just told from the bottom up. The instrumentation again plays a crucial role, coating the narrative with lush layers: