The most immediately recognizable difference between Angel Olsen’s debut album and the follow-up, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, is an exhilarating confidence woven through each song. It shows in her voice, Olsen’s essential instrument that cascades over rolling waves of guitar strums and AM radio fuzz. The self-assuredness of her new record is palpable in its words, with the midwest-singer constantly pursuing honesty in the situations of which she sings. The tremendous benefit of Olsen’s newfound poise is an inviting, personal album that encourages subsequent spins and features songs you want to explore.
A forlorn guitar strum and megaphone effect on Olsen’s voice sets the tone. With “Unfucktheworld,” we get our first glimpse of an almost deadpan quality in her delivery. Given that much of this album was inspired by her time in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, arguably the city’s new Wicker Park in terms of its music scene and culture, it’s exciting to hear Olsen embrace sonic and thematic elements from Exile In Guyville from Liz Phair, an album born in the Wicker Park’s boys club. There’s an unapologetic femininity in Olsen’s songwriting, with its dual vulnerability and apathy, that sounds like a plea to the same boys club, as well as a pointed rejection. One liners like “I started dancing just to be around you,” drip with desperation, and then later “I dance because I know this one” exudes a vibrant independence.
Four songs into the set is the appropriately-titled “White Fire,” the slow-burning centerpiece from which the album title derives. Repetitive electric guitar and a subtle twinkle score an emotional exploration of self that’s uncomfortable in its reflective nature: “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.” The song is the darkest moment of the album, one that suggests there’s no coming above water for air. Instead, the narrator swims in depression, only barely escaping to “hit the ground and run” before being completely enveloped.
A song like “White Fire” requires room to breathe and stretch its limbs until aurally satisfied. The production on Burn Your Fire… comes courtesy of John Congleton, known for leaving his mark on records from St. Vincent, Anna Calvi, and many more. With Olsen’s penchant for saying a lot with few words and Congleton’s ability to say even more with dramatic pauses and sonic space, the record sounds like it could be playing from a lo-fi jukebox in an empty bar during a Chicago winter, then dramatically shift gears towards a more hi-fi, electric wall of sound. Songs like “Lights Out” are closing time anthems, while others like “Dance Slow Decades” rely on drums that ripple on a quiet pond as hazy guitar slowly rips a seam through the tension. The range of sound makes for an engaging listen yet weaves the songs together as essential parts of a story.
Thankfully, the narrative ends in optimism. On “Enemy,” Angel’s voice is at the forefront of the mix as she uses her delicate croon to send off her lover with a satisfied but firm goodbye. The follow-up and final song “Windows” could be a series of questions directed towards her lover or herself: “won’t you open a window sometime? / what’s so wrong with the light?” Drums enter from behind and slowly build into a sweeping crescendo. Burn Your Fire… smolders at its close, but Angel Olsen created a record that goes out with a blaze.