Somewhere underneath the laidback, country-tinged cuts on Angel Olsen’s 2012 album, Half Way Home, was an edgier, more energized songwriter, evidenced by the gritty guitar tone on “Lonely Universe” and the singer’s bitter snarl on “The Waiting.” Those more aggressive tendencies are featured more prominently alongside Olsen’s breathy vocals on Olsen’s follow-up, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, which is noisier, brasher, and more confident than its languid predecessor.
The album strikes a careful balance between its lyrics’ pointed self-criticism and the music’s stoner atmospherics. “Hi-Five” is structured as a casual romp through classic-rock signifiers, building on a distorted guitar riff reminiscent of Neil Young and the Seeds, a nonchalant aesthetic that belies the track’s lyrical meditation on loneliness. On “High & Wild,” where jangling, parlor-house piano and a loose bassline contrast Olsen’s wounded delivery, she explores how insecurity and complacency lead to destructive relationships and self-hatred. The majority of Burn Your Fire for No Witness revels in personal angst, proposing that the human condition is defined by our ability to trick ourselves into feeling comfortable while ignoring the chaos that surrounds us. That jaded worldview is especially present on the sparse, two-minute opener “Unfucktheworld,” where Olsen suggests that devoting oneself to other people simply serves as a distraction from one’s past mistakes and lack of self-worth.
Olsen’s gorgeous falsetto, however, doesn’t suggest fragility, but strength, as on closing track “Windows,” which is the redemption that follows all of the uncertainty that’s come before it. “Won’t you open a window sometime?/What’s so wrong with the light?” she beckons, not to a lover, but to herself. It’s an affirmation that she, and all of us, deserves better—that allowing yourself to feel joy and pleasure is as authentic and deep as feeling vindictiveness. Though Burn Your Fire for No Witness spends a lot of time exploring the pitfalls of the human condition, “Windows” offers a chance to escape, and Olsen finds intense beauty in that opportunity.