I’m prepared to admit that I can’t always readily identify what makes a great album great. Sometimes, sure, there’s a clear vision, a great leap forward for an artists, or some wholly evident backstory that adds depth to the melding of rhythm, melody, and lyrics. These are the pieces that give someone writing about music–forever correctly identified as the rough equivalent of dancing about architecture–something to grab a hold of, something that projects a discernible narrative onto the emotional, organic reaction to a collection of music. I can contextualize an album against others in an artist’s career and parrot their talking points about creative inspiration while finding the echoes of the intent in their songs. Sometimes, though, when pressed into the purest honesty, I have to take a humbler approach, especially in the first flush of my reaction. Sometimes a great album is just great because it’s fucking great. Attempts to expand on that reaction leave me flummoxed.
Burn Your Fire for No Witness is the second full-length release from Angel Olsen, a singer-songwriter who first snapped her fingers for attention as a collaborator of Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Her debut album, Half Way Home, was noted for its folky starkness, which has led to widespread commentary about the comparative fullness of the follow-up. That may be accurate, but Burn Your Fire is still a pretty spare affair, with Olsen’s deceptively rich, earth vocals largely nestled atop spectral music with residual buzz. She can come across like P.J. Harvey in her offhand intensity mode (as on album opener “Unfucktheworld” or “High & Wild”) or a more distractible, exhausted Suzanne Vega (“White Fire”). Her voice has the ruminative quality of Chan Marshall’s without quite ranging into the unsettling high drama she often achieves. It’s a perfect match for her songs, and fragile as exposed as a porcelain heart on a rotting shelf.
The lyrics largely concern themselves with heartache, in a manner that is direct and scored with novel turns of phrase, as on “White Fire,” on which Olsen sings, “Everything is tragic/ It all just falls apart/ But when I look into your eyes/ It pieces up my heart.” The first lines are minor variations of those heard of dozens (hundreds?) of songs before, but then comes “It pieces up my heart,” a description so strange and devastating that it turns the song on its head. Later on the same track when Olsen stretches her voice to a strained whisper, she is finding different, artful ways to radiate quiet, lingering pain. Even when the album seems on the surface more plainspoken (“Forgiven/Forgotten” or “Lights Out”), there are challenging and complex layers that emerge. If the album occasionally threatens to become too relentlessly downcast, like a more intricate and interesting Sharon Van Etten release, it’s always rescued by Olsen’s consistently transfixing presence, not least the sense that her soul isn’t just being bared but slowly shredded. Beyond even that, there’s a richness to the album that’s nearly impossible to shake. Like I typed, fucking great.