Boldly reclaiming the yodel from snack food and anti-martian weaponry, the bracing quality of Angel Olsen’s trilling continues to strikingly contrast with the modest feel of her arrangements. Her intonation is so searching, so lost in melody that the songs start to resemble something much more poignant than songs. They sound like they need to spill forth and swirl around for awhile, with no concise agenda. They are pleading with themselves to transcend the meekness of their office, but mindful of the sapping futility of singing into a well. Rather than tunes, her songs are like fevered melodic passages that don’t seem to have endings or beginnings. And she, Bathetic, and now Jagjaguwar have pushed these moments out to sea for us to enjoy, ignore, or needlessly write about (hey now!).
Existential dread and doubt is a hard thing to tap your toes and nod your head to. Even with increased instrumentation, Burn Your Fire For No Witness is just as tricky to acclimate oneself to as her previous releases. Like an ornately wrapped lemon drop drawn from a dusty pocket, there’s an almost dulled sort of bittersweet proffered here. Like the strangely comforting voice that reminds how eventually you won’t have to get up and face the day anymore, Olsen’s voice hovers low to the ground. The mundanity of passion wrought through language and tuneful repetition doubles back on itself, and we’re face to face with a talented woman with no illusions to sell. Perhaps that’s what the title is about. Futility is so easy to come across in the pursuit of self-expression that one might as well attempt to embrace it.
That said, Burn Your Fire For No Witness and this artist will likely continue to wow anyone lucky or attentive enough to bear witness. Watching this performance last year, I was dumbstruck (like many others) by her strength and raw skill as a performer. It served as a keen reminder that this was an artist whose accomplishedness and poise were but the foundation for her more humble aims as a recording artist. One senses she wants to utilize her formidable talents to present the most messily human, intimate portraits she can manage. Like a good drama, the most enthralling moments of Burn Your Fire occur in the most unpolished and ambiguous facets. Each song is familiar at first listen, only to transform into intricately indelible settings the more you follow their path.
It’s very tempting to get into highlights, but perhaps it’s an illusion that there are any. There isn’t a misstep to be found here. There are a couple moments that veer close to an overly-maudlin tone (namely when the piano shows up on the sixth and final tracks), but this tone is just part of the strange alchemy of traditional singer-songwriterisms and fumbling tremulousness that make these 45 minutes so curious. Like Jana Hunter, Olsen makes the immaculate and the ramshackle sing together in a way that is so enchanting that there’s almost has no need for choruses or hooks. The restlessness of this album bodes well, even for those who may not be on board with some of the aesthetics (jangle pop is a prominent one). It’s easy to see the best is yet to come.