Last year, no, two years ago now, Angel Olsen released her very well accepted debut Half Way Home in 2012, an album built upon the unusual Lo-Fi, Indie Folk and Alternative Pop of her earlier works like her Strange Cacti EP. It wasn’t my favourite album of the year if I’m honest; it introduced her beautiful and unusual voice to me more than anything, but I was never particularly overwhelmed by the sound. That being said when I heard her new album Burn Your Fire For No Witness had leaked I was actually a little bit excited, and that excitement has only grown since I’ve been obsessively consuming this newest release.
And what better way to open the album in the same stellar way as “Acrobat” opened her debut; “Unfucktheworld” bathes Angel’s voice in a simpering fuzz and goosebumping inducing reverb as she peaks in that vaguely hollow vocal style she has truly perfected. The style is minimalistic, sparse, reliant only on similarly processed guitar for melody as she sings enigmatically about, well I’m not entirely sure, failed relationships seems to be the most logical assumption. But it in no way sets the style for the album, as the disparate Indie Rock leads of precursor single “Forgiven/Forgotten” burst into the fray with rushes of abrasive electric guitar and pounding drum kits. In the same way that the opener was a deliberately slow-burning, almost mournful piece, “Forgiven/Forgotten” is a fast-burning, uptempo cathartic rush of sound.
Teen blogger favourite, and admittedly one of mine too, “Hi-Five”, takes a slightly less harsh and driven pace, but keeps hold of the warbling, growling guitar lines.
“And are you lonely too?
And are you lonely too?
So am I!”
Angel sings as she overcomes her fears in this romantic piece of fringe Americana; there’s a strange, home town kind of familiarity to the sound, especially when the piano rings out in the closing moments, that just gives it an intimacy and relatability that the last album was missing so desperately. But that’s enough of that; teen angst has its roundabouts as well as swings and “White Fire” crushes the pacing and brings another funereal atmosphere back as the textures are all stripped down to the bare vocals and guitar. It’s stunningly clear and softly sung, and its long (for the album) 7 minute span really highlights her understanding of how to balance her pieces, lending certain lines and verses a bit more resonance as we get left with the distal, lo-fi instrumentation echoing and growling in the backfield.
“High & Wild” is back to blow the cobwebs away again though, it’s not all doom and gloom. Not only does it bring back some of the Rock and Pop facets to the mix it also has Angel’s voice pushed to the limits in its last moments as she lives up to the track’s namesake, singing defiantly and then sending the track spiraling into a crushing void of distorted instruments. And the flip-flopping continues in the ballad that “Lights Out” evolves into, gearing up from its touching Folk roots into a crescendo of Indie Rock guitar and soaring vocals; “Stairs” also does something similar as it opens with a relatively unassuming and frankly somewhat boring melody before it segues rapidly into a fully conceived piece that once more has a euphorically romantic setting.
“Iota” comes and goes unassumingly, not really adding anything to the table that we haven’t already seen already, while “Dance Slow Decades” mirrors its title perfectly, eking out gloriously slow, reverbed guitar and rich piano strokes in its slow-turning light, just gearing up for a more uplifting final few moments as it descends abruptly into the hauntingly minimal “Enemy”. Bereft of any distortion or processing (almost), it’s probably the most direct and intimate track of the album as we get to face off with Angel and her guitar one on one as she sings of a long and tired relationship that seems to be drawing to a close despite their best intentions, but is ultimately in both their best interests. Finally, the stunning closer “Windows” comes in to round things up for us, preferring to stick to her roots a little as we continue the more Folk lead streak of the last few tracks in what is once again another crushingly beautiful and sparse piece. Angel sings hauntingly in these final moments, like probing sunbeams cutting through a smokey darkness of Slowcore instrumentation, asking repeatedly “Are you alive? What’s so wrong with the light?”, questioning why we choose to shut ourselves away.
It’s not out for another month or so (I’ve been a bit cheeky and very premature listening to the leak), but I have a strong feeling this could be one of those early year albums that manages to stick around. It’s got a fantastic balance of styles and a keen understanding of pacing; it’s rarely dull and surprisingly full of suspense: where is Angel going to take this song next? Nothing’s written in stone, it’s very fluid and while much of it is rather depressing, especially in the lyrics, it’s played off somewhat and it never really feels overtly melancholic. A real keeper, very good.