The Anniversary

Burn Your Fire For No Witness Turns 10


“Unfucktheworld” does exactly what an opening song on an album should do. The sparse opening chords are immediate moving. When Angel Olsen’s voice comes in, it feels urgent, even though she sings with a striking delicacy, taking her time with the words, which ricochet as if she’s singing in a cave, her inflections floating through the air for a while.

The album it opens turns 10 years old this Sunday. Olsen recorded Burn Your Fire For No Witness at Echo Mountain Studio, located inside a soundproofed church; an arched ceiling and stained glass windows are almost tangible on these ballads. “Unfucktheworld” sounds startlingly unguarded, like you’re in the room with her as she performs with only her voice, an acoustic guitar, and deep emotion. She doesn’t need anything else when the lyrics are so memorable: “I quit my dreaming the moment that I found you/ I started dancing just to be around you/ Here’s to thinking that it all meant so much more/ I kept my mouth shut and opened up the door.”

An ex-boyfriend introduced me to Angel Olsen’s music. Burn Your Fire For No Witness soundtracked our relationship whether I liked it or not. When I once asked him to send me a song that reminded him of me, he replied with a link to “High & Wild” — a bittersweet, maybe foreboding answer. “You’re gone, you’re gone/ You’re with me but you’re gone,” Olsen opens the song drawling, sounding irritated, cheeky. She concludes, “Well this would all be so much easier/ If I had nothing more to say/ Oh, if only, if only.”

If only feels like a core element of Burn Your Fire For No Witness. On the quiet, sprawling “Iota,” Olsen starts most sentences with the phrase. “If only we grew wiser with each breath/ If only we could dance ourselves to death,” she lulls. “If only.” There’s a persistent desire for things to work, but there’s a palpable lethargy that comes with trying just for it to fail. “I definitely feel like every song has its own attitude and a lot of them are addressing the same kind of thing,” she told The Quietus the year of the LP release. “Something is missing, or I need to accept this is a good thing. I guess the character is confronting that something needs to be solved or something doesn’t need to be solved, there’s no need.”

So many moments will send chills down your spine. There is a fearless amount of space in these songs, and Olsen’s voice shines through the darkness as a light. “White Fire” is the most haunting, an apocalyptic love ballad: “Everything is tragic/ It all just falls apart/ But when I look into your eyes/ It pieces up my heart.” The whispers are even louder than the dreary, reverberating guitars, creating a pitch black backdrop for her eerie scenes: “I heard my mother thinking me right back into my birth/ I laughed so loud inside myself it all began to hurt.”

At age three, Olsen was adopted by parents who were well into middle age, so she “fantasized about what it was like to be young in the ’30s and ’50s, more so than other kids my age,” she told Spin. The old-timey nature of Burn Your Fire For No Witness can be heard in various moments, such as her Patsy Cline-like proclamation of “I feel so lonesome I could cry” on the vibrant “Hi-Five.” Yet instead of wallowing in that sadness, she chooses to be cheery: “Are you lonely, too? Are you lonely, too?/ High five! So am I!” There’s a balance of old-age wisdom and childlike curiosity on these more upbeat tracks, just like there’s a balance of electric buoyancy and acoustic intensity throughout the whole record. At times, Burn Your Fire For No Witness is a celestial slow dance; other times, it’s a celebration where people are frolicking in circles with linked arms, united in their discomfort.

The louder moments were a surprise to Olsen’s audience, who were accustomed to the gentle texture of her 2012 debut full-length Half Way Home. But Olsen insisted the transition into putting together a full band was natural, and producer John Congleton was receptive to her vision. The cacophony of building guitars in “Stars” encapsulate her frustration: “I think you like to see me lose my mind/ You treat me like a child; I’m angry, blind/ I feel so much at once that I could scream,” she sings. It’s an indie-rock supernova that could easily prompt headbanging. Yet when I saw her live in 2018 in Tarrytown, the crowd remained seated as she stood solo on stage with just her guitar and her voice, a reminder of her range.

In the years since, Olsen has evolved her sound many more times. She leaned into pop with her 2016 breakthrough My Woman. 2017’s Phases was a compilation that called to mind Burn Your Fire For No Witness, likely because it was made up of B-sides and demos from that time. She explored synth-pop with 2019’s All Mirrors and then went full country on 2022’s Big Time. Olsen can really do whatever she wants. Burn Your Fire For No Witness, though, is a special moment in her discography, as intimate and warm as its title suggests. There are obviously witnesses to Olsen’s indie-rock blaze — “Unfucktheworld” alone has over 35 million streams on Spotify — but it still burns with a delicate earnestness that makes the songs feel as if their yours and yours alone.

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