Missouri-born singer turns emotional pain into a positive on her second album
Angel Olsen is only just releasing her second full-length album, but the Missouri-born guitarist already has a fully formed personal philosophy: “No-one will ever be you for yourself”, she sang gravely on ‘The Sky Opened Up’, from 2012’s largely acoustic ‘Half Way Home’. Released on tiny North Carolina indie Bathetic, the album’s word-of-mouth success invited her to a comparably bigger deal with Jagjaguwar, who are putting out ‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’.
Its title is a biblically bold declaration accompanied by 11 songs that put the 27-year-old’s worldview in no uncertain terms: disinterested in the attentions of others and steadfastly committed to honouring her own intentions and experience. That perhaps makes it sound like Savages’ unwavering manifesto, but Olsen’s approach is rounded by human fallibility, recalling a fabled line from Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’: “There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in”.
With Olsen’s Weimar cabaret-worthy voice and gently woven guitar, ‘Halfway Home’ could have passed for a long-lost classic from an age before electric recordings, sounding haunted by ghosts. ‘Burn…’ is her first album recorded with a full band, though the resultant fuzzily glam swagger doesn’t forsake her wise style, instead coming off like Bill Callahan covering T Rex. Hiring John Congleton to produce was the perfect choice: as evinced on his work with Callahan and St Vincent, he has no signature sound beyond pristine, crisp recording, preserving the purity of Olsen’s vision.
Her newfound musical directness translates into the songwriting: much of ‘Burn…’ exists in the aftermath of various palpable betrayals, which Olsen confronts swiftly and cuttingly, breaking beyond the internal dialogues of ‘Halfway Home’ and letting her deeply relatable scattershot responses spill out. On seething opener ‘Unfucktheworld’, she raises a glass brimming with sarcasm to “thinking that it all meant so much more”, and finally snaps on ‘Stars’, where she’s so furious, she threatens to “scream the stars out of the universe” with Maria Callas’ verve. But a few deep breaths later, she realises she could take this incident and use it to “sing the stars into the universe”.
That’s where the light gets into Olsen’s work: beyond her gorgeous guitar, whether sawdust punk, reverb-laden slow dance or near-silent reverie, it’s in the way she’s been steeled by sorrow, a process of galvanising that never ends. It’s tough, as the crushed ‘White Fire’ makes plain, but eventually you’ll gather the strength to stare sadness in the face and laugh: the jaunty ‘Hi-Five’ is a comic paean to lost souls wallowing in self-pity. To get to that point, “all you need is one good thought strong in your mind”, she sings on ‘Lights Out’, a waltzing, rallying country torch song. The sublime ‘Burn…’ is testament that Olsen’s philosophy of self-belief pays off.