It was back in 2010 that Angel Olsen released her debut ‘Strange Cacti’ EP on cassette. The usual formats followed, along with much acclaim for the EP’s dark ambience, which exuded both intimacy and defiance. She followed this with ‘Halfway House’ in 2012, again just Olsen and her guitar, largely unadorned. Now on ‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’ drummer Josh Jaeger and bass player Stewart Bronaugh have entered into the fold. It’s not Olsen’s first foray into a band dynamic, having toured with Bonnie “Prince” Billy as part of Emmett Kelly’s The Cairo Gang and collaborated with US singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler, but it is the first time her own songs have been handed over so overtly to others to add their weight.
As such, with two members of Lionlimb in Jaeger and Bronaugh backing her, so to speak, at times you can almost imagine Sybille Baier kicking it in some 8-tracked garage with The Reatards for company. Forgiven/Forgotten is a dose of irresistible power pop, with Olsen rendering a completely joyous “I don’t know anything/ But I love you”, heralding a galloping finale that arrives all too soon. Moments like this appear sporadically over the album as Olsen moves from this type of embracing, lo-fi pop to smoky country through to those creations of a folkier slant. “I feel so lonesome I could cry” she begins on Hi-Five, both an irreverent wink and a heartfelt reference to past greats, then the song takes some wonderful twists and turns along its playful structure – “Are you lonely too?/ Hi-five/ So am I” punches the song’s apogee, and loneliness has never sounded so victorious, or so sardonic.
Over the picked folk and intimate vocal of White Fire, the initial vagaries of the album’s title only become demisted once we step into the song’s downbeat realm. Just above a whisper on the album’s centrepiece, Olsen dispenses what sounds like hard won knowledge with an ethereal coolness, “If you’ve still got some light in you/ Then go before it’s gone/ Burn your fire for no witness/ It’s the only way it’s done”. High & Wild ploughs equally self-eviscerating themes: “You might as well be blind/ You don’t see me anymore”, one a haunting lament, the other moving from Nancy Sinatra to keening punk.
There is a kind of disparity between the grungier asides and Olsen’s more personal approach, with her gentle, picked acoustic underpinning it all. It’s less about the clarity of the notes she picks out, though, than it is about the thrumming ambience that they create, gelling into that muted warmth that pulses through the album and binds all these tracks. The overarching bind, of course, is that emotive voice that commands with a low murmur, before startling with the tremulous highs of Enemy, or the epic heights of Stars.
The lo-fi aesthetic adds a certain edge to ‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’, dispelling to an extent the inevitable comparisons to a ream of female artists mining a similar vein. Olsen’s voice resonates within the reverbed swathe of her bandmates’ accompaniment, and the record reveals glimpses of a more unruly musical side to accompany the bite of the content she has displayed in previous releases. It turns out dark, undoubtedly downbeat and personal accounts in places, exhilaratingly raucous moments of abandonment in others. On Enemy, Olsen sings “I’m lighter on my feet/ When I’ve left some things behind”, a mixture of regret and hopefulness. It typifies the album’s contrasting perceptions on relationships and love; by the end, we’re still not quite sure if Olsen has worked it all out.