If this is the first you’ve heard of Angel Olsen, you owe it to your ears to engage in a bit of worthwhile musical exploration. Albeit small, the Missouri-born songstress’ discography delivers an unparalleled listening experience not easily reduced to words. Her recorded material spans from rare, obscure accordion tracks (including an enchanting Charles Manson cover), to Strange Cacti, her hauntingly beautiful self-produced EP, to her more polished and highly-praised 2012 release, Half Way Home. This time around, Angel debuts a backing band on her anticipated sophomore LP Burn Your Fire for No Witness, set to be released on February 18. The record is distinctive from her previous material, yet flawlessly meshes Strange Cacti’s beautifully excessive reverb with the minimalist spirit of Half Way Home. Angel’s music does not easily lend itself to a specific genre, as is made evident on Burn Your Fire. Charged-up tracks such as “Forgiven/Forgotten” and “Stars” introduce fuzz and heavy drumbeats to the uniquely austere folk style she so expertly honed on Half Way Home. Nevertheless her characteristic melancholy allure is sustained by the album’s intensely poignant tracks “Unfucktheworld” and “Dance Slow Decades.”
The album’s stylistic variety is far more refreshing than it is confusing. Angel has a knack for heavy, confrontational content, which is wondrously conjured by the interplay between her hard-hitting, honest lyrics and arresting voice. Her guitar playing is well tamed, allowing her voice, an instrument in its own right, to cut through heartstrings like a hot knife through a Dairy Queen ice cream cake. Her range and vibrato are equal parts strange, bone-chilling, and addictive. Throughout the record Angel seems torn between the opposing conclusions that life is a downright disappointment, and that it is something worth sticking around for. “White Fire,” a wistfully Leonard Cohen-reminiscent track, expresses the former view with its opening lyrics “Everything is tragic / It all just falls apart.” Such desolation is elegantly balanced with more hopeful tones; on “Lights Out,” she assures us that we are alone in this world, but that it’s possible to find profound beauty in this loneliness. And we have to believe her because she asserts with a voice that seems to come from a place beyond the realms of our physical universe and a tone rich in unparalleled wisdom. To some, her voice is an acquired taste, perhaps because it packs more raw, pulsing emotion than Roy Orbison singing hymns at your grandmother’s funeral. But regardless as to whether musically-induced impassioned emotional states are your thing or not, I strongly recommend devoting your ears to this captivating crooner and her angelic music (pun intended).