Many of the superlatives describing Angel Olsen refer to how seemingly little it takes for her to leave an audience speechless, even spellbound. But Olsen has never been as timid as those descriptors imply, and the noisy, fiery hints in her earlier work find a fuller expression on her newest LP, Burn Your Fire for No Witness.
Here, Olsen sings with full‐throated exultation, admonition, and bold, expressive melody. Also, with the help of producer John Congleton, her music now crackles with a churning, rumbling low end and a brighter energy.
Olsen first gained notice as the stand‐out eccentric in Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s mysterious band the Babblers (given that all six of them were known perform in hooded pajamas and sunglasses, this is saying something).
In 2010, she released an arresting tape on Bathetic called Strange Cacti, which gave off the impression that she’d recorded it after falling down a well, trying to sing loudly and cavernously and urgently enough to be found. And she was, more or less—her cult following multiplied with the release of 2012’s excellent Half Way Home, a surreal and lyrical collection of folk songs that sounded a bit like Vashti Bunyan playing a midnight game of Ouija.
When Angel Olsen's proper debut, Half Way Home, materialized in 2012, its spare indie folk compositions and subtle references to the greats of ‘50s country congealed into a restless whole. The album was great, but something in the way the songs connected with each other suggested that Olsen had something far more complex to say that wasn't quite getting through with Half Way Home, despite its fantastically crafted offerings. With Burn Your Fire for No Witness, Olsen expands in all directions, fully reaching the depth of expression hinted at on her last album while still lingering in the restlessness and searching feelings that make all of her work so captivating. Production work from John Congelton adds a different dimension to Olsen's sound, and many of the songs are bolstered with tasteful playing from drummer Josh Jaeger and bassist Stewart Bronaugh, as well as touches of organ, piano, and other various supportive sounds. More than anything, however, the heightened production and instrumentation just help to show how much Olsen's songs have grown and how confident she's become as a performer, even in the space of one album. While still bearing some similarities to Roy Orbison or lesser-known mid-’90s indie singer Edith Frost, Olsen's voice feels more fearlessly her own here, stepping out of the muted shadows to bellow and wail like some wild hybrid of PJ Harvey and Emmylou Harris on a rocking track like “Forgiven/Forgotten” or the more country-seeped “Hi-Five.” The heartbreaking seven-minute dirge “White Fire” follows obviously in the footsteps of Leonard Cohen, but manages to succeed in its ambitious tribute, dire and personal rather than simple mimicry. The album seamlessly strolls from soaring numbers like “Lights Out” into a more stripped-down second half before ending with the gorgeous and inspired “Windows.” The song's multi-tracked vocals and pained melody get into different territory than anything else on the record, leaving the door open for what's to come next and suggesting that Olsen will continue to push her development exponentially with her next album.
All Music Guide – Fred Thomas