BY FRED MILLS
In a live review last fall, BLURT’s commentator, clearly entranced, called Chicago’s Angel Olsen’s singing “feral and raw, cutting a ragged path through the air. [She] has a varied, emotionally charged voice, now soft and jazzy like Joni Mitchell, now vibrating with feeling like Connie Francis, now hiccupping and wailing like a female Charlie Feathers… Olsen is a singer to watch.”
That’s an understatement. For Olsen’s new full-length Burn Your Fire For No Witness those comparisons floated above hold true, and to them I’ll add a few contemporaries: Olsen is a contradictory mix of Marissa Nadler’s ethereal spookiness, Sharon Van Etten’s unsettling intensity, and PJ Harvey’s ability to rock hard then float high within a single breath. From opening track “Unfucktheworld,” with its inevitable but laudable overtones of another Chicago songbird, Liz Phair; through dreamy, nocturnal waltz “White Fire” and jagged, blazing Velvets-styled stomper “High & Wild” (a brilliantly accurate songtitle, incidentally); all the way to minimalist, acoustic-guitar-and-voice album denouement “Enemy” and gospellish, hymnal coda “Windows,” which sets Olsen’s tremulous pipes on full flight, weaving in and around themselves like some ghostly duet; each track here is utterly dissimilar, yet sonically intertwined to such a degree that the record comes off like a classic song cycle.
Thematically, Olsen seems to be operating at an elevated sensory state, one in which a constant internal dialogue is raging. Self-doubt leads to dark meditations, possibly even suicidal thoughts, in “Lights Out,” but Olsen presses to find reason to believe:
“If you feel like quitting now then try a little harder
The things we need the most they seem to take a little longer
No one’s gonna try it for you, darling no one
No one’s gonna wait there with you
Just when you thought you would turn all your lights out it shines
Some days all you need is one good thought strong in your mind.”
Elsewhere, she pushes the sky away and lashes out, as in “Stars,” in which she fairly wails:
“I think you like to see me lose my mind
You treat me like a child I’m angry, blind
I feel so much at once that I could scream!”
Producer John Congleton achieves a remarkable balance for Olsen’s moodswings, judiciously adding echo or pushing her voice back in the mix in order to convey the aforementioned interiorness. Olsen rises to the challenge she sets for herself as well, traversing an emotional spectrum that leaves the listener gasping with empathy and drained from the shared exertion. Burn Your Fire For No Witness is a mutual journey in every sense of the term, the signpost of a brave new artist right on the cusp of greatness.
Come to think of it, she might be there already.
DOWNLOAD: “Stars,” “Windows,” “Hi-Five”
Listen to the Olsen album in its entirety at NPR Music.