Angel Olsen’s sophomore album, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, introduces a stark contrast from previous work at its onset. The title speaks of fierce independence and the recommended protection of one’s creation, and each song in turn drives this point home—each voiced by Olsen like a howling wind coming from the top of a mountain. The strangeness here lies in the fact that on this album (her first for Jagjaguwar), Olsen is fully backed by a new band (Josh Jaeger on drums and Stewart Bronaugh on bass and guitar). On previous releases, including her first full-length Half Way Home and early EP Strange Cacti, Olsen was left to her own devices with a stripped down, barren production giving way to her powerful voice. Now that the sound is filled in, the expected result is not what one actually encounters. Olsen’s voice is so piercing and melancholy, like a gust of wind across a lonesome prairie, that in the midst of her fullest album yet, she seems even more alone.
Playing Burn Your Fire feels invasive, as though one is listening in rather than listening to. This quality is part of the album’s charm, however, since there is little pretense or staged niceties to sift through. Olsen’s voice is different on each track, sometimes sounding like a ’90s alt-rock frontwoman (like on the upbeat “Forgiven/Forgotten”), other times borrowing from ’70s Topanga Canyon-style folk country (as on “Lights Out,” a soaring gem) and on “Enemy” we see a shift to the Joni Mitchell-esque soprano warbling that was displayed on Half Way Home. None of this feels forced or contrived, though. Rather it seems as though Olsen’s voice is able to showcase whatever emotion lives inside her at the time and give it life through her singing. There is so much raw feeling present, and Olsen is able to infuse it into each song as though it were second nature. On the song “Stars,” this phenomenon is given a description by Olsen herself: “I feel so much at once that I could scream / I wish I had the voice of everything.”
Though we are in a sense intruding on this innately personal, guarded place of Olsen’s, there is not a prolonged sense of voyeurism. This is dissolved at the gate by a feeling of being able to relate. Olsen’s voice commands our empathy, and makes us feel emotions we weren’t aware were present in us. Most songs deal with loneliness, or of being around others and still feeling innately alone. Even the songs that reach out do so on the basis of shared loneliness (take “Hi-Five” for instance: “Are you lonely too? / Hi-five / So am I / All your life, stuck inside / I’m stuck too”.)
All of this could grow heavy, and yet Olsen’s pure voice keeps the album from sinking down to murky abyss. We are kept at bay, and then in the last song “Windows” (a perfect closer), there is an invitation to action. “Won’t you open a window sometime? / What’s so wrong with the light?” Olsen sings. We have almost forgotten ourselves, our feelings blending so seamlessly with each passing song. It is here that Olsen offers us a remembrance of the outside world, and her voice now takes on the marked vulnerability of finally sharing one’s ‘fire’ with another.