Saturday, 1 March 2014

Angel Olsen - "Burn Your Fire for No Witness"

Coming two years after the wonderful Half Way Home, the buzz in the lead-up to Burn Your Fire for No Witness was that Olsen had traded out gentle acoustic songs for guitar-driven rockers. Those paying attention between albums might have heard the standalone ‘Sweet Dreams’ as the first sign that Olsen would be changing her palette. Up-tempo lead single ‘Forgiven/Forgotten’ seemed to confirm this theory, feeling more suited to festival stages than campfire confessionals.

As it turns out, those folk purists pre-emptively shouting “Judas!” needn’t have worried about Olsen’s new direction. Electric guitar is certainly an important part of the album, adding dirty Southern fuzz to ‘Hi-Five’ and driving the chorus of ‘Forgiven/Forgotten’, but it’s used sparingly, with the latter song an outlier on a slow album that overall doesn’t feel too far removed from the delicate spirit of Half Way Home. The differences though, while subtle, are enough to cause a few problems.

The two albums follow a similar pattern – eleven songs, with two longer ones. While Half Way Home was slightly undone by its longer tracks, with the meandering ‘Safe in the Womb’ diverting the flow of the album’s first half, Burn Your Fire avoids this problem – the seven-minute ‘White Fire’ beguils with its warm, hypnotic texture, while 'Enemy' stands as one of her best lyrical displays.

The main problem with Burn Your Fire is that it moves too far away from the intimate vibe of Half Way Home without offering much in the way of replacement. This isn’t always the case – the new set of textures is partly responsible for two of the best songs on the album, both of which start out as slow torch songs before being lifted into something much grander. 'Dance Slow Decades' begins with a particularly vulnerable passage bringing to mind the early-‘90s slowcore outfit Codeine, before morphing into something resembling Mazzy Star’s more country moments. 'Windows' is a brilliant album closer, with Olsen providing her own angelic backing vocals over a blossoming piano-led outro.

However, more often than not, the production dulls the atmosphere rather than accentuating it, and it’s rarely interesting enough in itself to warrant the increased fidelity. The instrumentation can feel sort of anonymous, whereas on Half Way Home it was right up there in the mix, almost uncomfortably, making it impossible not to imagine those songs being played by someone. Were it not for Olsen’s singing, which remains wonderfully dynamic and unpredictable, tracks like ‘High & Wild’ (the start of a mid-album lull) might feel drained of personality. As it is, all the heavy lifting is laid on her voice, which even then sometimes lacks that arresting quality of otherness that made Half Way Home such a unique document.

To add to that, Olsen’s writing talent, while remaining strong, has lost some of its quirks. Nothing here has the unexpected turns of, say, ‘Acrobat’, and there seems to be less variation in her melodies. Perhaps it’s just that she’s no longer a new artist, but the surprise of her early material is largely absent. Occasionally, as on 'White Fire', it gives way to songs that reveal their quality over repeated listens, but half the time that’s not the case. Burn Your Fire is hardly a bad album, as there are plenty of good songs, but it’s a disappointing entry in what to date had been a pretty flawless catalogue. There's nothing as good as her previous highlights, and the album as a whole doesn’t gel particularly well. By all accounts Olsen's live show has stepped up a notch, and neither her voice nor her song-writing ability is under question here, but next time round it might be interesting to see her push them some more.

Highlights: ‘Forgiven/Forgotten’; ‘White Fire’; ‘Dance Slow Decades’; ‘Windows’

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