One of the first lines of Angel Olsen's critically acclaimed sophomore effort, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, is, "Here's to thinking that it all meant so much more."
Don't let her soft wailing and palpable yearning for answers to mind-haunting questions fool you. To assume that this is just a breakup album means that you're both missing the point and proving the main point of Olsen's most powerful work to date.
"I guess I would call it more of a reflective album. ... I had been traveling so much and not really focusing on the things that actually bothered me about the interactions that I'd been having with people or my friends. I didn't know how to explain myself or my voice, and I feel like a lot of it came from being angry or realizing that it was my responsibility to figure it out ..." Olsen says. "I think a lot of it is about disappointment and miscommunication, and the idea that you're talking to one person about something, but maybe you realize later that person or maybe you weren't as connected to that idea as you'd thought. A lot of it is based on misunderstanding."
The John Congleton-produced album is 11 tracks of unfiltered and fearless longing and frustration. Through it, Olsen stares through your soul with the tranquil intensity and nihilistic disillusionment of a Lisbon sister in the second act. In an age when society is conditioned to flood the human psyche with outside stimuli to save us from our own discomfort or loneliness, Olsen runs from nothing. She confronts every dreaded consternation, illuminating every flaw or insecurity her music might stir within you, then pets your cheek to comfort you. It's not sympathy she's offering, rather solidarity or at the very least, commiseration.
"They might seem personal, but at the same time I think that a lot of [my songs] are just passing thoughts that are exaggerated and articulated in order to put into a song," Olsen says. "Then by the time I'm singing it, its more just a celebration of transparency."
Though Olsen holds the theme of transparency to high regard in her art, she admits that communication has not always been a strong suit when it comes to working on her own music. Though she'd always wanted to before, Burn Your Fire For No Witness is the first time that Olsen has collaborated with a band on her solo material.
"In the beginning, I was trying to get a band together before I started singing with Bonnie Prince Billy, I just didn't know how to do it. ... I was frustrated with other people, but the thing is, I didn't know how to communicate what I wanted. So I think a lot of it was watching how people interacted within collaborations, and working with people like Will Oldham," she says.
Though known prominently for her work with Oldham and other associated acts, Olsen found her backing band in the most unlikely of places: her day job.
"I had been on tour for a couple of weeks to promote Half Way Home, and came back, and this guy I worked with at this cafe called The Bourgeois Pig, he and I had worked kind of opposite schedules. He had just graduated from DePaul and he told me he played drums. We had worked together this whole time, and I had no idea he was a musician. He introduced me to Stuart, who played guitar on the album. ... My friend Emily is going to be playing bass on tour."
"I was changing a lot in terms of working with a band. The way that I was writing songs was changing. And I wanted the record to be a sort of honest reflection of everything that had changed," Olsen says. "I didn't want it to be taken over by some producer and polished too much. ... My goal was for it to sound like the natural progression of me working with these other musicians."
The chemistry in Olsen's band is tangible on Burn Your Fire For No Witness, partly due to Olsen and Congleton's decision to record all of the songs live as though performing, adding vocals and fine tuning after the fact. The result is a rolling momentum felt throughout the album that matches the ferocity of the content.
Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Olsen's album is that it takes no pleasure in trying to be anything it's not. There is no mediocre thesis about the pointlessness of being a millennial, or a woman, or anything at all. All Olsen aims to do is use her own existential dialogue to put a mirror to your own. It's unpretentious, unrefined and hyper-relatable. It harkens back to a time when that was all we needed from a good record, and reminds us that it still is.
Angel Olsen will perform live tonight at Three Links. Tickets are on sale now.
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