Half Way Home, the 2012 album with which Angel Olsen built her name, was a great album, but its greatness was the sort that you can only really admire from a distance. Whether purposefully or as a byproduct of the way it was recorded, Half Way Home sounded like the sort of record you might dig up at a deep-south flea market. Olsen’s voice was a spectral operatic trill, and it danced above her skeletal acoustic folk and old-timey country songs like a flame flickering over a match’s head. It sounded like some ancient relic, albeit one in miraculously mint vinyl condition, and its mysterious distance made for much of its appeal. Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Olsen’s new album, isn’t an experimental piece of work by anyone’s standards, but it represents a vast step forward for Olsen. Musically, she’s changed everything, combining her ghostly folk with some beautifully executed ’90s-style indie fuzz. But the real great thing about the new album is this: Olsen suddenly sounds like a real person, not like some long-dead ancestor whispering to you in a dream.
Olsen is singing about the same things on the Burn Your Fire as she was on Half Way Home: Loneliness, longing, the way you look at the world when you’re always trapped inside your own head. But there’s also giddy elation there from time to time, and deep connection. The first words she sings on opener “Unfucktheworld” are these: “I quit my dreaming the moment that I found you / I started dancing just to be around you.” And even though it’s not a happy song — it’s about losing all that happiness, not finding it — there’s a conversational directness to it that I didn’t hear on her older songs. “Hi-Five” is a song about isolation, too, but it’s rendered with a joyous warmth, and its climax hits like a big loopy grin: “Are you lonely too? Hi-five! So! Am! I!” Just as quickly, she leaves that feeling behind. “White Fire,” the next song, is an incantory Leonard Cohen-esque circular koan that starts with Olsen muttering, “Everything is tragic / It all just falls apart.” But even as it spools out, the warmth of “Hi-Five” lingers, giving a certain dimension to everything around it.
“White Fire” is a spare, stunning song that would’ve fit just fine — and been a highlight — on Half Way Home. Olsen, it seems is only getting better at this acoustic-seance style. But the song is an outlier here, and the real heart of the album is in the warmer, fuzzier, rocked-up songs. “Forgiven/Forgotten” has a straight-ahead pound that reminds me of Waxahatchee’s Cerulean Salt, or of prime Superchunk. “Hi-Five” has this twinkling tremolo that suggests she’s been listening to a lot of Roy Orbison lately. “Lights Out” is the sort of sparkling road-hose slow-dance burner that Jenny Lewis would kill for. “Stars” is a crashing, triumphant down-the-middle indie rock anthem; if people still made mixtapes, it would end up on a ton of them.
When Olsen jumps back and forth between this fuzzier stuff and the shivery acoustic music she came up doing, it never sounds like a leap; both forms seem to come to her naturally. Producer John Congleton, who might know more than anyone alive about how an indie rock record should sound, has a lot to do with that. But this isn’t a case of a producer figuring out some new things to do with a great singer’s voice. Instead, it’s an organic full-band affair. Olsen met the two other members of her trio, bassist/guitarist Stewart Bronaugh and drummer Joshua Jaeger, while working in a Chicago cafe. And in their interplay, you can hear the confidence of musicians who are used to playing with each other, who trust each other. Maybe that comes naturally to Olsen, and maybe it doesn’t. Olsen came up playing with Will Oldham, and she shares some of his elusiveness. But the bigger, heftier forms of music and the bolder, more concrete sentiments on Burn Your Fire fit her beautifully. And if Olsen can make that old-school indie rock sound this easy, it makes me wonder what else she can do.
Other notable releases out today:
• Phantogram’s gleaming, synthetic major-label move Voices.
• Guided By Voices’ reliably juicy Motivational Jumpsuit.
• Lydia Loveless’s raucous alt-country ass-kicker Somewhere Else.
• Shocking Pinks’ triple-LP return Guilt Mirrors.
• Suzanne Vega’s self-released, all-over-the-place Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles.
• Six Organs Of Admittance/Skygreen Leopards side project New Bums’ debut Voices In A Rented Room.
• Tomas Barfod’s Pulsing EP.
• Krill’s Steve Hears Pile In Malden And Bursts Into Tears EP.