Review: Angel Olsen's new album builds on her life's dramas

Second album boasts robust range of emotions

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'Burn Your Fire For No Witness'

Album artwork for Angel Olsen's "Burn Your Fire For No Witness." (Handout / February 17, 2014)

Angel Olsen has the kind of voice built for drama. When she swoops into her upper register, her occasionally claustrophobic songs about fraying relationships become almost operatic.

Olsen's second album, "Burn Your Fire for No Witness" (Jagjuguwar), still bears the imprint of her past. She's a singer-songwriter out of St. Louis who slipped into the indie-rock world singing harmonies with Will Oldham, aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy, and self-releasing a cassette of originals in 2010. Her 2012 full-length debut, "Half Way Home," was aptly titled, suggesting a singer-songwriter who was starting to realize just how powerful her songs could be with more developed arrangements.

"Burn Your Fire for No Witness" boasts an even more robust presence, thanks to production by John Congleton, who has collaborated with Joanna Newsom, St. Vincent and Modest Mouse, among others. Initial reports hinted that this would be Olsen's "rock" album, and the heavier backing suits songs such as "Stars," in which the singer wrings herself dry as she "scream(s) the feeling till there's nothing left."

But the album also begins and ends on a fragile note, as if to remind listeners of where she came from. "Enemy" couldn't be more sparse, her voice and guitar melding beautifully in solitude. On the deceptively languorous opening track, she turns the phrase "I am the only one now" into a mantra, as if to steel herself to move past the wreckage of an affair.

Though most of the relationships Olsen describes are beyond salvaging, she's hardly self-pitying. In "Iota," her narrator wishes for an alternate world to insulate herself from heartbreak: "If we could only stay the same." In doing so, she creates an existence far more terrifying to imagine than the one the real world presents. "We'd close our doors and … go to bed … there wouldn't be one thing to fight about." Or fight for. In the end, she concludes, without turmoil there wouldn't be a life worth living.

'Burn Your Fire for No Witness'

Angel Olsen

3 stars (out of 4)

greg@gregkot.com

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