That metamorphosis is already well underway for the most gifted of these three artists, 26-year-old Angel Olsen, born in St. Louis, long based in Chicago, and recently relocated to Asheville, N.C. Her previous album, 2012’s Half Way Home, featured her acoustic guitar and vocals almost exclusively, foregrounding the rustic vibrato and erratic swoops in her throat in a way that made listeners think of yodeling prewar 78s and operatic cylinder recordings. (She got noticed backing Will Oldham on record and as part of his touring “Babblers” and the Cairo Gang.)
The new album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, only enhances her chameleonic versatility. From second to second her intonations might nudge to mind Billie Holiday, Skeeter Davis, Karen Dalton, Claudine Longet, Emmylou Harris, or Hope Sandoval—but now she also has a band, and all those vocal figure eights prove resilient enough not just to skate on delicate surfaces but to stage an aerial dogfight with drums, electric guitar, and keyboards.
Instead of some past Appalachian or cabaret singer, the Olsen of Burn Your Fire most reminds me of the Lower Dens, the Baltimore-based band that’s made some of the most stirring rock of the past decade. The resonance is telling, because that band’s leader, Jana Hunter, first emerged alongside singers such as Josephine Foster and Joanna Newsom (with whom Olsen now shares producer John Congleton) during the last period that the anachronistic-youth threat got much play—the “freak folk” hype of the early 2000s.
In that anxious interlude under the shadows of war, terror, and the Bush administration, however, yelpy shouts tended to drown out dusty ballads, and the eccentric soloists of that milieu were soon eclipsed by the banded-together likes of Animal Collective and Arcade Fire. Today’s young singers of the Great Recession seem less compulsively galvanized, more resigned to and at ease with their own dispossession, and more able to laugh about their melancholy.
On nearly every song on Burn Your Fire, Olsen seems to be singing about feelings that can’t be held onto for long, serial dislocations that leave her at once liberated and bereft. The videos for “Forgiven/Forgotten” and “Hi-Five” illustrate the sensation: In the first, Olsen embraces a man whose face is scribbled out, then withdraws into a whole background of scribbles; in “Hi-Five” we find her literally dancing with herself.
That dynamic seems very 2014 to me, expressive of a situation that none of the old-time singers who live in the folds of Olsen’s voice could ever have experienced: Hers is a generation that’s grown up with a double life, with both everyday existence and an online array of networks and avatars. Perhaps especially for a young woman, this surfeit of information and interaction can at once enlarge and suppress the self. So this record resounds of being constantly seen yet perpetually overlooked, being isolated by connection and yet connected in that common isolation—to friends, to listeners, to loss.
Critics have a tendency to overestimate Olsen’s lyrics—comparing her language to Leonard Cohen’s, for example, when it’s actually the arpeggiated guitar arrangements on “White Fire” that recall 1968’s “Stranger Song.” Rather than elaborate figures and allusions, she relies on simpler sets of images and verbs often in sequences of pairs that accrete to reveal a bigger picture. If you simply read a lyric sheet, Burn Your Fire might seem like a straightforward breakup album. What extends its implications are the details she braids and rivets into the lyrics with her voice, colorations that can make adjacent syllables seem to hail from alien climates, to vibrate across different dimensions.
As a consequence, while what Olsen sings about—relationships, separations, the strain of self-invention and assertion—are evergreen subjects, the consciousness through which she filters them feels surprisingly new, and just evasive enough to entice us to return and listen again. She taps into the sounds and sentiments of the past, from the pagan to the postmodern, as if dipping into a cabinet of paints to synthesize new colors. While her songwriting still may be uneven, it’s more than adequate to her musical purposes, to make this record of wavering lights and stars and fires burn into the memory, to take its place among the future resources for nostalgics and visionaries yet to come.