Angel Olsen learns there’s nothing wrong in a little selfishness
There’s a lot of damage in the shadows when Angel Olsen says six simple words.
Those words -- “I am the only one now” -- are sung at the conclusion of the first song on her new album, and they’re repeated seven times. Her voice goes higher, then lower, alternately crestfallen and then revelatory. Scarred? A little. Heartbroken? That’s harder to gauge.
If a love song is inherently egocentric -- I feel something or other because you did something -- then Olsen’s new album “Burn Your Fire for No Witness” is about grappling with romance in an era besotted with narcissistic status updates. Self-branding may be the norm, but learning to be truly selfish is something else entirely.
Recorded with a mini-rock combo for whom rough-around-the-edges emotion takes precedence over perfection, Olsen’s narrators wonder what has been sacrificed for stability -- another relatively quaint idea these days. A daughter ponders whether her mother wishes her back into the womb, couples lie together in silence and when marriage vows equate to little more than boredom, well, “high-five,” Olsen says with kiss-off carelessness. “I’m stuck too.”
“Burn Your Fire for No Witness” arrived at No. 65 on the U.S. pop charts Thursday, and it’s Olsen’s first album recorded with a backing band. Though the St. Louis-bred artist is no stranger to collaborations, having won fans in the indie folk-rock world by touring with Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie “Prince” Billy) Olsen is still learning how to let others into her world.
“If you have a specific plan for your artistic endeavors, keep the people you’re working with to a minimum,” said Olsen, who spoke by phone early Sunday. “It’s so much easier to be disappointed if other people are working on the project. It’s going to change no matter what.”
The 27-year-old Olsen is protective of her personal details, to say the least. While she said she dropped out of college after one year, she politely declined to say where. When she left Chicago about a year ago for Asheville, N.C., she again politely declined to tell journalists, and even some acquaintances, where she was heading.
“It’s kind of weird to be in your own town, and someone at a restaurant says, ‘Hey, how’d the show go last night?’ and you don’t know who they are,” she said. “It’s really alienating.”
And on that Sunday morning, Olsen was still more than a little bothered that a fan tried to get a tad too intimate with her the night before. (She’ll be in town on Oscar Sunday for a date at the Echoplex.)
“The other night someone tried to kiss me on the cheek. I was like, ‘You know, I wonder what Dolly Parton would do in this situation?’ Not that I’m Dolly, but how would she react? ‘Darling, I think you’re crossing a line.’”
“Burn Your Fire for No Witness” is the sound of an artist becoming bolder, both in sound and delivery. Released by the Bloomington, Ind.-based Jagjaguwar, an acclaimed indie home to Grammy-winning softie Bon Iver and scruffy local rock group Foxygen, the album departs from the more bedroom-recorded feel of a 2010 cassette EP and a 2012 full-length, “Half Way Home.”
Although there’s more rock ‘n’ roll bite to “Burn Your Fire for No Witness,” it remains choppy and low-fi, built more to suit Olsen’s dramatic vocal readings than to add energy to her sound. “Forgiven/Forgotten” has a bitter rhythmic fire that echoes “Exile in Guyville"-era Liz Phair, but as the album continues Olsen will throw anyone who tries to saddle her with references.
“Dance Slow Decades” is a country lament that’s stretched and scraped until the guitars feel bruised, all while Olsen’s shuddering vocals add to the desperation. Alternately, “Hi-Five,” with a little more smoothing out, could have been a long-lost Everly Brothers cut, as it’s part Western and part rock but with a spite that’s all Olsen.
When it comes to her singing, the album changes drastically from song to song, with Olsen near operatic at times and threatening to fade into nothingness at others. “I’m trying to learn how to control my voice, and how to use my voice to set certain tones for things,” she said. “It’s me making up for the fact that I’m not a solo guitarist. I can’t play the guitar the way I can sing, so I want to improve my singing the way someone would improve their guitar playing.”
Olsen’s album became one of the more anticipated independent releases of a young 2014, her profile raised in part by the pedigree of Jagjaguwar but also an appearance at Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival last summer.
But though she worked closely with producer John Congleton, whose credits also include St. Vincent, Olsen said she wasn’t interested in adding layers to her sound simply for the sake of it. There are moments, such as “Iota” or Enemy,” where one has to stain to hear Olsen and the hushed acoustics.
“I can totally understand why many people would skip the super-sparse songs, but it’s important for me to be myself, to share my thoughts, to share what I believe in,” she said. “I think it’s worth hearing. That’s a weird thing to say, but it’s like, ‘This one is for me, OK? If you don’t like it, it’s OK.’ I’m not trying to be negative, but that’s how I feel when I’m playing those songs.”
The my-way-or-bust attitude isn’t about a refusal to compromise, Olsen said, but the simple recognition that what she’s doing is a privilege. If it ends tomorrow, it will be on her terms.
“I’m prepared to go back to a coffee shop,” she said. I walk into coffee shops all the time on tour, and people who work there look so depressed. I want to relate. I’ve been there. Then it’s like, ‘Well, you might be there again, so don’t feel sorry for them.’”
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