I had no idea that the points of reference for Burn Your Fire For No Witness, the new album from Angel Olsen, would be Patsy Cline and Leonard Cohen. Simply put: I had no idea how good the new album from Angel Olsen would be. I just wasn’t prepared for it. Olsen’s previous music could be likened to Joanna Newsom or Marissa Nadler, fine artists to be sure, but Olsen has managed to develop her aural palate while simultaneously channeling some of the most classic sounds in music history. Burn Your Fire For No Witness is nothing short of astonishing.
The lo-fi aesthetic applied to album opener “Unfucktheworld” puts us at Olsen’s feet. We’re right there in the room with her, and the room feels like some sparsely furnished 1960s New York apartment. In this way, we’re invited into this yearning collection of songs. Immediately following this, Olsen proves she won’t hesitate to change trajectories without warning by delivering the buzzing garage pop track “Forgiven/Forgotten.” The tune is the definition of an earworm–listeners will find themselves returning to it time and time again. After this one-two punch of a wake-up call, the listener might feel like they have a handle on Olsen’s moves, but she still knocks you out with “Hi-Five,” which takes the sensibilities of the first two tracks and blends them perfectly. This is Patsy Cline meets the Sonics.
From there, Olsen continues to move in new and astonishing directions. “White Fire,” the song which provides the album’s moniker, unfolds across almost seven minutes and owes a great deal to Leonard Cohen’s early work, specifically “Master Song,” “Stranger Song,” “Avalanche,” and the classic “Famous Blue Raincoat.” Frankly, the songwriting here, the poetic prowess is staggeringly good–eerie, haunting, yet remarkably relatable. In lines such as, “My feet are always heavy as I inch toward the door/ I thought we’d leave this for ourselves, a hundred times before/ But I guess we’re always leaving even when we look the same/ and it eases me somehow to know that even this will change,” Olsen’s sentiments feel visceral and personal, but simultaneously universal. As Olsen delivers the album’s title, “If you’ve still got some light in you, then go before it’s gone/ Burn your fire for no witness; it’s the only way it’s done,” you’re left teetering between bewilderment and enlightenment. As if you’ve opened up your mouth to ask what it means, then suddenly, you already know.
Throughout the album’s second half, Olsen moves within these parameters she has created, returning to familiar tones as well as flexing them, blending them with one another. No song among the final six capture the perfection in the first six, but that shouldn’t imply that the songs aren’t wonderful. After all, it’s hard to sustain perfection. Within these tracks, Olsen does deliver some transcendent moments, such as the organ, thumping bass, and transcendent vocal performances that comprises the arrangement of closer “Windows.” In it’s fully realized final minute, the song delivers a cathartic closure to this incredible album.