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Angel Olsen - Burn Your Fire For No Witness

Angel Olsen - Burn Your Fire For No Witness

by , 11 February 2014

I've enjoyed this record a lot, and it's with mild regret that I waste precious listening time writing about it. It's with equal sadness that I'm subject to descriptive limitations, since whatever elaborate string of (supposedly) highly tuned adjectives I apportion the record, they only really convey its shadows.

Angel Olsen began as a part of something else, a member of The Babblers - or The Cairo Gang in certain circles. The band tour(ed?) and perform(ed?) with Will Oldham, an honorary figure of American counter-culture wound up in punk's past, present and future incantations, and the coarse, earnest heritage of Americana and folk. Olsen went under the name of Angela Babbler and I'm pretty sure that's her in this video (dressed in a onesie, shifting between screams and warbles).

Olsen (naturally sharing clear stylistic threads with Oldham) intermittently weaves punk angst - and its post-punk rhetoric - with the rough entreaties of folk, confident swing of Rockabilly and more lonesome throes of country music. This record - and certainly Half Way Home (2012) before it - provokes some kind of weird backwards-transcendence, the listener not lifted out of the world but into it. Eating, walking, looking, feeling, thinking, each verb lived differently under the Olsen influence. I sat on the tube listening for the first time and felt a pretty hefty wave of solipsism - only my thoughts and their interaction with the record felt tangibly real; everything else was mirage, a weird intersection of surface levels I'd somehow sussed and superseded. It's a record that doesn't escape life but deconstructs and reconsiders its place within it.

Angel's Lyrics cut through bullshit with laconic wit and rough directness, giving an inroad into existential discussion that doesn't feel forced, pretentious or entirely hyperbolic. I suppose it's all about approach, encouraging an individual to recontextualisation their own sense for the world, rather than ramming episodic tales of personal woe down their ears and expecting some magical intervention.

The record does transform in real-time; from the irate, youthful hooks of 'Forgiven/Forgotten', to the tender thematics of 'Windows' - a track that feels tense, tender and emotionally balanced. And the in-between points are equally sporadic, syncopated with a collection of different life-periods, not necessarily lived chronologically, but experienced in an arbitrary and time-less loop -- growing up, and back, and forward, and often just remaining.

Her debut Half Way Home was an equal triumph, but it had a slightly different composition. Without the instrumental richness present on the new record, Olsen's vocal weaved a more overt path; it's wild warbling and searching falsetto accenting the overall sound. Burn Your Fire, through increased complexity of instrumentation, creates a new dynamic - the vocal is more understated and reserved, less elusive and divergent - it's autonomy partially tethered by the whole ensembles balanced interrelation.

Still, across both records - and the predating EP Strange Cacti (2011) - exists one poignant consistency: Olsen's voice, lyrics and character are always and entirely synonymous. The technical shifts, the rough breaks, the world-collapsing warbles; the crass irony, the dooming rhetoric, the apocalyptic humour - it all feels wonderfully adjacent with genuine elements of character, or at least opens genuine dialectic with Olsen's seemingly diverse senses of self.

I knew that all the things that made listening such a pleasure would of course be near impossible to translate. Perhaps because the record works magic on such intimate levels that the expression of its effects are garbled to outside ears. But a pretty clear message extends beyond the finishing note, echoed repeatedly through the cinematic instrumentation of the records final track. It's an end that precedes beginnings, and seems a fitting place to conclude:

"Won't you open a window some time," Angel calls - with subtle longing and reserved frustration - "what's so wrong with the light?"

Rating: 9/10

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