Music Reviews
12:31 pm
Tue March 11, 2014

Angel Olsen: A Voice Of Confounding Power

Angel Olsen begins the song "Hi-Five" by paraphrasing Hank Williams, admitting she's so lonesome she could cry. She goes on to say she just wants someone who believes in love as urgently as she does. The twanging guitar throbbing beneath these sentiments suggests that it's going to be a long, lonely search. Over a matter of minutes, Olsen has created the landscape she'll inhabit for an entire album.

Frequently on the new Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Olsen makes her voice echo and float in back of the guitars, keyboards and drums, surging forward to assert her ethereal loneliness, her periodic angry frustration. In "High and Wild," her voice is elusive but her sentiments could not be more direct: "You're gone, you're gone, you're with me but you're gone." It's a complete musical representation of being stuck with someone who doesn't want to be with you, even as you're insisting that that someone should want you. Olsen knows it's a loser's game, but she plays it anyway. This takes its own kind of nerve. Olsen can also make this sort of self-torture sound utterly beautiful, as on the gorgeously languid "Iota."

Burn Your Fire For No Witness is Olsen's first album with a backing band, and she makes great use of it. Her singing contains a naturally mysterious quality, at once confiding and baffling, even unknowable. On a song such as "Forgiven/Forgotten," Olsen has the drums and bass guitar hammer away at her dented vocal. This creates the sound of someone beating herself up for being so obsessed with being in love, knowing that that's not enough, for her or for the object of her love.

There are moments on this album when Olsen sings shamelessly sentimental, self-pitying words that are instantly contradicted and raised in admirable complexity by the tone of her voice, her sharp phrasing, the arrangements she applies to her melodies. She's immensely shrewd about the differences between what someone says and what someone means. For the length of this album, she's created a world in which she can share a desperation that ends up seeming triumphant and strong.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The Chicago-based singer-songwriter Angel Olsen has a new album called "Burn Your Fire For No Witness." She's frequently performed solo and has been referred to as a folk singer, but rock critic Ken Tucker says this new record, her first with a backup band, takes her music into an unclassifiable realm.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HI-FIVE")

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Angel Olsen begins that song, "Hi-Five," by paraphrasing Hank Williams, admitting she's so lonesome she could cry. She then goes on to say she just wants someone who believes in love as urgently as she does. The twanging guitar throbbing beneath these sentiments suggests that it's going to be a long, lonely search. Over a matter of minutes, Olsen has created the landscape she'll inhabit for this entire album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGH AND WILD")

ANGEL OLSEN: (Singing) You're gone, you're gone, you're with me but you're gone, a feeling once so strong is now an old forgotten song that you don't sing so high or wild, you don't sing so high or wild. You're here, you're here, but your spirit's disappeared off to someplace that (unintelligible) and I don't recognize you. I wish that this could turn our pain to bliss, and we could put our fears aside and learn to laugh and be alive and let our bodies be...

TUCKER: Frequently on "Burn Your Fire For No Witness," Olsen makes her voice echo and float in back of the guitars, keyboards and drums, surging forward to assert her ethereal loneliness, her periodically angry frustration. On the song I just played, "High and Wild," her voice is elusive, but her sentiments could not be more direct: You're gone, you're gone, you're with me but you're gone.

It's a complete musical representation of being stuck with someone who doesn't want to be with you, even as you're insisting that that someone should want you. Olsen knows it's a loser's game, but she plays it anyway. This takes its own kind of nerve. Olsen can also make this sort of self-torture sound utterly beautiful, as on the gorgeously languid "Iota."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IOTA")

OLSEN: (Singing) If only our memories were one, we only had to blink and it was done. If all the world could see it with one eye in perfect color to the perfect sky. If only we could turn ourselves around and all the things we're looking for were found. If only we grew wiser with each breath. If only we could dance our way to death. If only...

TUCKER: This album, "Burn Your Fire For No Witness," is Olsen's first one with a backing band, and she makes great use of it. Her singing contains a naturally mysterious quality, at once confiding and yet also baffling, unknowable. On a song such as "Forgiven/Forgotten," Olsen has the drums and bass guitar hammer away at her dented vocal. This creates the sound of someone beating herself up for being so obsessed with being in love, knowing that that's not enough, for her or for the object of her love.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORGIVEN/FORGOTTEN")

TUCKER: There are moments on this album when Olsen sings shamelessly sentimental, self-pitying words that are instantly contradicted and raised in admirable complexity by the tone of her voice, her sharp phrasing, the arrangements she applies to her melodies. She's immensely shrewd about the differences between what someone says and what someone means. For the length of this album she's created a world in which she can share a desperation that ends up seeming triumphant and strong.

GROSS: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed Angel Olsen's new album "Burn Your Fire for No Witness." You can follow our blog on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. You'll find staff-curated photos, videos, interview highlights and a look into what's happening behind the scenes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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