ANGEL OLSEN: BURN YOUR FIRE FOR NO WITNESS (2014)
1) Unfucktheworld; 2) Forgiven/Forgotten; 3) Hi-Five; 4) White Fire; 5) High & Wild; 6) Lights Out; 7) Stars; 8) Iota; 9) Dance Slow Decades; 10) Enemy; 11) Windows.
I hate to say it because it might seem seriously unfair to some of my readers, but I have to say it anyway: in my opinion, albums that focus exclusively on the artist's (real or imaginary) relation with his/her other simply do not work in the 21st century any longer. Unless this subject simply serves as a generic theme for some catchy pop hooks, chances of the artist offering us some deeply original and consistently captivating soulful insights are simply close to zero — even when the artist is as naturally gifted, as striving, and as tasteful as Angel Olsen. She is all these things, yes, and they are disclosed even better on her second album than they were on the first, and yet, even after three or four listens, my reaction is still close to "I really can't wait for this to end".
It's not as if she were intentionally running some single idea into the ground — on the contrary, Burn Your Fire For No Witness is a formal expansion on already conquered territory, with deeper production, stronger reliance on electric instruments, an amalgamation of folk and country motives with psycho-pop and experimental rock. Throw in that husky voice, wobbling between harshness and tenderness, acceptance and rejection, vulnerability and whatever is the opposite of vulnerability, and here's solid proof that women have won over men these days, since the female equivalent of Bon Iver at least makes music that does not make you want to sign the petition for an executive order banning the use of log cabins all across America.
And still, there is a problem, and that problem is: I do not believe this music. Listening to this, to me, is like watching a magic show delivered by an apprentice whose rubber bands and third arms show all over the place. I hear echoes of all her influences (which remain largely the same as they used to be), I hear commitment, but it's like the spells she tries to cast are totally misplaced, or like the ingredients she uses for them are all made in Taiwan or something.
Case in point: ʽWhite Fireʼ, the longest and also one of the sparsest ballads on the album, sounds like a cover of a lost Leonard Cohen song from the Songs Of Love And Hate era — same Cohen-endorsed acoustic picking sequence, same simple poetic verse structure, same mood of loneliness and desolation. But where a real Cohen can (not always, but frequently) put me in a state of trance with this simple trickery, Angel Olsen sounds like a poser in comparison. (I stress the in comparison bit, because in real life everything works in comparison, and if you happen to be a young fan who admires Olsen but has not yet had a chance to seriously check out Cohen, I wish you a long, happy, fruitful, and instructive life ahead). Is it just because Leonard was first and she comes so very very next? Or is it because Leonard's poetry was what it really was — serious poetry, continuing and deepening an old, respectable, well-studied, and perfectly understood tradition — whereas Olsen's lyrics sound like half-decent, uneducated, unenlightened imitations? Is it because, even when you cannot suggest any direct interpretation, Leonard still ends up sounding like he's really into something serious and deeply troubling, whereas Olsen's soulful admonition of "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" seems to be addressed to nobody in particular and to signify nothing in particular?
Or maybe I'm just a grumpy old guy, because on YouTube, people behave in a far more simple manner — they just say "She sounds like a female Leonard Cohen! How beautiful!" and leave it at that. Well... something tells me that perhaps, fifty years from now, people will still be listening to those old Cohen records without going "He sounds like a male Angel Olsen! How charming!" At least if there was a shred of something new to this second-hand magic of a monotonous mantra stretched over seven minutes and two chords, that could help me out — but when a clear lack of effort is being passed for artistic humility and «focus on the essential», it just irritates me.
It's a bit easier when she embarks on her journey to become the female Roy Orbison rather than Leonard Cohen — the songs are shorter, less pretentious, a bit less monotonous, and incorporate a toe-tapping element that always helps out when you're not a master charmer by trade. So, with lots of psychedelically distorted guitars and happy-tragic vocalizing, ʽHi-Fiveʼ is probably one of the better numbers on the record, with an intentionally simplified, but not trivialized, approach to lyrics — the lady is searching for somebody who'd agree to be her partner in loneliness. Once again, she does not win me over: that "I feel so lonesome, I could cry..." bit does not feel particularly lonesome. But at least it's solidly within the pop tradition, and the whole thing ends up being moderately catchy and somewhat fun.
More often, the songs end up between these two extremes, though, and end up being too poppy to be serious and too serious to be poppy. The opening title ʽUnfucktheworldʼ sounds like something you'd expect to see on a hardcore punk record, but the song, like every other song on here, is still about Me and You, and I take this to mean that the world is fucked because Me and You cannot find an ideal understanding, and as soon as that understanding is found, The World Becomes Unfucked, and the lion lies down with the lamb. But for now, all that we have established is that "I am the only one now", delivered in a semi-frightened cold murmur that probably suggests an element of dehumanization. But who dehumanized her? How did it happen? Was it serious? Was it inevitable? Is there a cure? Does Prozac help? Can we help? Could we at least suggest one extra chord in the musical backing?..
Her singing is perhaps most pretty, but also most confusing, on the last track, ʽWindowsʼ. Just like ʽTiniest Seedʼ on the previous record, this last track seems to offer an optimistic way out — "won't you open a window sometime, what's so wrong with the light?" — except it is not clear who she is addressing the question to: the intangible Other or to her own self. "You" suggests the Other, but it is around herself that she spent weaving a frail web of darkness and loneliness for the previous ten songs, so perhaps Me and You simply got merged in one (not too difficult to do considering a common base in loneliness). Or maybe there's a third character in here somewhere, like a fairy of light and hope floating down on two poor would-be lovers and poking them around: "Why can't you see? Are you blind? Are you dead? Are you all right?" Problem is, they're not all right but they're not all wrong, either. As a tear-down-the-wall conclusion to an album that has just spent forty minutes trying to convince us that there was a wall in the first place (and failing to properly convince me, for one), ʽWindowsʼ feels just a tad phony the same way the rest of the album sounded just a tad phony.
I mean, I just can't help it, sorry, but when a song like ʽStarsʼ proclaims that "I feel so much at once that I could scream", and then proceeds to murmur and hum instead of, you know, actually screaming, «phony» is really quite a mild word to express my dissatisfaction with the final product. Sure, we can always find a cop-out — like suggesting that the murmur and hum is a meaningful artistic sublimation for loud emotional outburst (and God forbid that Angel Olsen would end up pigeonholed as an emo kid, anyway), or that the entire song is really about closing one's eyes and freezing on the spot — but whatever be the cop-out, intuitively I still feel a mismatch between words, voice, and music, no matter which of the tracks I turn to. Nice try, for sure, but with a communicative breakdown like that, I will not pretend to pass this for a communicative success — nor, for that matter, will I admit that a selection of rave reviews for the album had me even for one second convinced that the reviewers in question were more successful in their attempts at communication than poor little me. But I will refrain from a thumbs down, if only because I still respect this sort of effort, and because in this kind of business, it is very easy to degrade yourself to the state of pretentious whiner (cue Justin Vernon again), which is something that Olsen has securely safeguarded herself against.