Despite her career having been littered with the unexpected, the only really surprising thing about Angel Olsen’s second album is its honesty. So much of the supposedly ‘vulnerable’ music we hear is, when it comes down to it, carefully orchestrated and often derivative fluff, where the music is overly complicated and the lyrics are in short-sighted second place. Olsen’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness doesn’t try too hard, and really hits the spot.
A grumpier, sulkier rock sound characterises this album, hardening the folk we heard on Half Way Home without alienating long-term listeners. Olsen’s despondent vocal could edge easily into the realm of comic, irritating teenage grouch, but somehow, although it sounds like she’s gritting her teeth, you can hear her eyebrows are raised and her eyes are shining brightly. She is not bored or unimpressed; rather, she is confused and sharing her frustration with us. And it’s impossible to resist getting lost in her thoughts.
Burn Your Fire For No Witness continues Olsen’s search for some sort of meaning, and reveals a loneliness that it is rare to see so readily shared. This matter-of-fact self-exposure that leaves us feeling so close, moved and, to put it a bit weirdly, well-disposed towards Olsen; we feel like we’re being spoken to in strictest confidence, and we feel reassured by the knowledge that someone else is asking the same questions we are.
Hi-Five kicks off with Olsen telling us bluntly that ‘I feel so lonesome I could cry, but instead I’ll pass the time’. It could sound whiney and self-indulgent if it weren’t for her country crooning over grungy electric guitars and biting percussion. White Fire is an album highlight, a seven-minute discussion of regret and loneliness, told with the hint of a wry smile. The self-deprecation goes some way to cover up Olsen’s faltering voice, but not far enough – it’s a delicate yet piercing section of undeniable sadness.
Before you start to write the record off as a surefire way to get depressed, wait: Lights Out packs some unexpected positivity, with characteristic attitude: ‘If you’ve got a sense of humour, then you’re not so bad’ and ‘Just when you thought you would turn all your lights out, it shines.’ If you want to listen to Olsen’s vocal talents away from the rocky backdrop, Enemy has her right inside your ear with a barely-there guitar part. It encapsulates everything else on the album – her many questions, her isolation, her understated ability to get under your skin.
The songs are consistently well-written, cohesive and natural, but not samey. What keeps us enthralled is that voice – unfussy, but immensely versatile and effortlessly accurate. One moment she’s Emmylou Harris, the next Connie Smith, the next Amanda Palmer, which should sound strange and overwhelming, but actually makes perfect sense in the context of each song and each stage of her exploration – from confession, to hypothesis, to repeated declaration of loneliness. Listen to this album when you have the time to soak it up and let yourself fall into the dense fabric of unanswered questions that she creates – it should sound hopeless, but it doesn’t.