Burn Your Fire For No Witness
I hadn’t heard of Angel Olsen before the release of her sophomore album Burn Your Fire For No Witness this year; rather, I hadn’t heard about her until this summer my brother said “Clare listen to this.” Angel Olsen is the kind of gal who makes me upset that nobody had told me to listen to her sooner.
When I first began spending time with this album, I was unsure whether it would endure against my tendency to relentlessly listen to music I like until I’ve exhausted it. I knew the general aural aesthetic would keep me hooked for at least while, but her lyrics sometimes hit me the wrong way, at times feeling mawkish (which is not to say she lacks awesome lyrical moments- “and time will turn our bodies inside out,” see “Iota”). The album title itself presented the same duality. While I liked the drama in “Burn Your Fire for No Witness,” it rings as though only a loftier way for Angel to say “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching.”
As I familiarized myself more with Angel through repeated listening and watching live performances, it became clear that she doesn’t hack away at her lyrics to create drama, she simply punches as much meaning into them as cannot be contained in the rest of the song. She’s true to our over-dramatic, hyper-sensationalized generation. This is a woman who likes to feel. Maybe her words occasionally hit like cardboard maxims, but they come from a genuine place. Their triteness is a tongue-in-cheek nod to our fascination with every extreme.
A friend and I made a November pilgrimage to Fun Fun Fun Fest in my hometown, Austin. After several hours of searching for the VIP lounge and trudging through people striving to look “different” in the same way, we made our way to The Parish on Sixth Street, where Angel was set to play. Angel being a favorite artist of us both, we stood excitedly near the front of the stage just behind a pony-tailed fellow and his happily stoned friend, who would periodically turn to shout something into the other’s ear above the dull roar of people and tenderly put a hand on his arm without seeming to notice.
It wasn’t until that performance that I got a feel for Angel Olsen’s stage presence and gained a better understanding of her peculiar lyrics. She is austere on stage, the perfect balance to the grandiose outpour of emotion through language. Similarly at odds is the “powerhouse” quality of her voice in live performances that I never knew existed in the quavering warble heard on her record. During the entire show, I only saw her face change two times— one little smile to herself and a laugh when she shared a joke with one of her bandmates, a laugh that to me felt eerie in its singularity. Her face remains stony and smooth, most markedly so at the most emotionally charged moments of her songs. When the songs reach their peak, she actually turns away from us, looking down at her guitar in plain concentration on translating her interiority into sound. Here, her external lack of feeling becomes irrelevant; anyone in the audience understands through sound alone what she didn’t bother to explain in facial expression. Any question of the depth of her connection to the audience is forgotten.
Angel Olsen performs “Sweet Dreams” (from Sixteen Tambourines, not her newest album, but I couldn’t resist) on KEXP: