Angel Olsen used to steal the spotlight as a backing singer for Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (aka Will Oldham). Then with the release of her solo debut Half Way Home, the singer/ songwriter stepped into her own. Now with the release of her sophomore album Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Olsen seems ready to set the whole stage aflame.
Given the title of her latest release, listeners may compare “Burn Your Fire For No Witness” to the similar slogan “Dance Like No One’s Watching.” Both phrases appear to be affirmations of empowerment or encouraging mantras that tell people to practice their art/ follow their own dreams despite what the masses might think. Yet, Olsen’s album title carries with it a discernible ache. Much like the singer’s own voice, there is sadness inherent in the tone. And a certain degree of that sadness stems from the use of the word “witness.”
If one is “witness” to an event, that individual has observed what has occurred for good or ill. No matter if one is ever called to a trial to relay their observations, the memory is always present. So if Olsen is proclaiming that individual fires should be burned for “no witness,” what exactly is she saying?
Judging from Fire’s opening track, “Unfucktheworld,” the message is pretty bleak.
“I have to save my life,” Olsen sings. “You may not be around / I am the only one now.”
The song’s instrumentation is minimal. Repeated acoustic guitar strums make up the entire foundation for Olsen’s echoed vocals to glide over, and the impression left is that of a spurned lover (or artist) coming to the realization that they must strive for self-reliance in order to survive.
“Hi Five” continues to drive home the theme of individual responsibility. Taking inspiration from Hank Williams for the introductory line, “I feel so lonesome I could cry,” the track also incorporates a distorted garage-like stomp that swings like a country song. Lyrics speak about loneliness and a yearning for “someone out there who believes,” or at the very least someone who is “lonely too.” But there’s a small hint of joy, when Olsen seemingly finds someone just as miserable to share a quick slapping of palms.
Watch the official video for “Hi-Five” by Angel Olsen here:
Such happiness makes rare appearances throughout the rest of the album’s running time. Instead, there is palpable regret. On “Iota,” the phrase “if only” is used repeatedly in lines wishing for better circumstances or outcomes. On “Stars,” Olsen wishes she had “the voice of everything,” so she could “scream” about, well, everything. And on “Enemy,” the singer opines, “If I could show you how I came to think this way, maybe you’d understand me now.”
Delivering that last line, Olsen doesn’t sound like she’s pleading. She seems resigned to not being understood, but such straits are not going to prevent her from trying to enlighten others of her state of mind. By constantly swaying from tender acoustic numbers to more indie rock styled rave-ups, Burn Your Fire For No Witness seems perched on the edge between two trains of thought, and the album somehow makes haunting magic out of this indecision.
Still, the overall goal, much like Jack Kerouac once wrote, appears to be for listeners to burn brightly, like those “fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
Angel Olsen may not have figured out all of the particulars yet, but her aim is true.
“If you’ve still got some light in you, then go before it’s gone,” she sings. “Burn your fire for no witness / It’s the only way it’s done.”
For more information on Angel Olsen or to see future tour dates please visit www.angelolsen.com.
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