For me, sadness and studying are inseparable, explaining why I’ve listened to Angel Olsen’s album, “Burn Your Fire For No Witness,” over twenty times. That, and because it’s really good.
I first heard Angel Olsen on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts series. If you don’t know what that is, it’s basically a series of online videos where artists—mostly indie-rock types—play acoustic sets. Olsen played five songs, all from “Burn Your Fire For No Witness,” and from that sample I made two observations: she looks paralyzed when she plays and her songs are quite sad. Before making the second observation, I was satisfied with myself for finding some chill study music. Angel Olsen, though, is better than that; she makes sad study music.
“Burn Your Fire For No Witness,” Angel Olsen’s second album, was touted to be her “rock” record. This is probably because, unlike with her debut “Half Way Home,” she now tours with a full band. Still, like with Courtney Barnett—and, to a lesser extent, Cate Le Bon—these extra instruments do not shift Olsen entirely into the realm of rock.
As vague as the “rock” label may be, Olsen would be better described as a folk singer. And on “Burn Your Fire For No Witness,” we’re given a folk album—one about relationships, loneliness, even feeling lonely in relationships. Just as this theme is not anything novel, neither, necessarily, is the music that accompanies it.
Angel Olsen certainly draws influence from American singer-songwriters like Hank Williams or Townes van Zandt, and though you would have a hard time arguing that her guitar-playing is at either of their levels, that is okay; Olsen’s originality comes from her voice. Fiery at times, quavering at others, Angel Olsen’s vocals sounds one part Laura Marling, one part Joni Mitchell, and even one part Nico. While Olsen mixed in newly written material with older works (“Safe in the Womb” was actually the second she’d ever written), the album was met with critical praise for, among other things, Olsen’s lyrics and its cohesiveness.
On the album’s first track, “Unf***ktheworld,” we get Olsen’s voice at its most reserved. Over just three chords, Olsen sings, “Here’s to thinking that it all meant so much more.” While serving as a disclaimer for the album’s focus on being disappointed—with people, even life in general—it is telling, too, that Olsen sings this line calmly. She’s certainly disappointed but she seems used to it—not unfazed, but definitely not surprised. It is with this droll, say, realistic tone that Olsen wins us over as chief narrator. She may be bored and disappointed at times, but she keeps her wit throughout. It is because of this that we are, in turn, not bored or disappointed with her songs.
Did I say that she could be fiery, too? Just after “Unf***ktheworld,” are the album’s two singles, also the heaviest songs on the album. For one, they explain why people thought this album would be rooted in more rock than folk, but also, they show that Olsen is multifaceted. While other artists have trouble making the leap from solo to full-band, Angel makes this shift naturally. In fact, on lead single “Forgiven/Forgotten,” it’d be hard to imagine the song with just Olsen and her acoustic. The harsh distorted guitars and industrially-tight rhythm section hit hard and even allow Angel to exhibit a new technique: yelling. Yelling, “All is forgiven, all right, you are forgiven,” Olsen again conveys her wariness in others. She might forgive him, or maybe she won’t. Regardless, she’d rather move on.
Keeping her usual skepticism, she now yells it. These thoughts, her disappointments with those around her, can’t always just be said as mantras under her breath; sometimes Olsen has had enough. But at just over two minutes, “Forgiven/Forgotten” and its once-closeted anger are kept short.
Much of the album deals instead with what Angel keeps inside.
On my favorite track, “Enemy,” these internal thoughts are of, I presume, someone who knew her very well but is no longer around. Whether this is a former lover, a mentor or a friend, Olsen’s sentiment is the same: We didn’t end things well and I still think about you. With lines like, “We might be older now but is it changing anything” and “I wish it were the same as it is in my mind,” Olsen wavers between questioning reality and just wishing circumstances were how she imagined them.
To the tune of faint strumming, Olsen’s delivery on this track is notably breathy, like she just ran around the house a dozen times. Olsen knows, though, that she wouldn’t have to move an inch to realize that whoever she is writing this track for isn’t around. We might expect this to frustrate Olsen, but she instead sings “I want the best for you, so I won’t look your way.” While in “Forgiven/Forgotten,” Olsen feigned forgiveness as a way to move on with the next day’s disappointment, here on “Enemy,” Olsen truly forgives and as a microcosm for her thoughts from album one to album two, we get a sense she has matured.
But maturation is specific to the person. I believe Olsen shows her maturation through forgiveness, but it is important to note that those she forgives aren’t always around to receive. Thus, her forgiveness is internal. But, as the album title states, that is just fine. Burn your fire for no witness, to deal with your problems no others are necessary. It is you who has these thoughts more than anybody; it is yourself you must forgive.