Fierce and light and young. Angel Olsen sings that line over and over at the end of “White Fire,” the standout track from her sophomore album Burn Your Fire For No Witness. Curiously, though, the lyric sounds neither fierce, nor light, nor young. “White Fire” is fraught with apprehension and the insight of a woman wiser since her last outing in the world. That paradoxical tension between fear and confidence is the heart of Burn Your Fire; it’s what makes it a phenomenal record.
At first, Burn Your Fire seems like your standard singer-songwriter fare: folkie with feelings gets introspective, writes some songs about sadness. Olsen complicates things, though, musically and thematically. She trades a worn-down acoustic guitar for a Telecaster and plays power chords where Sam Beam or Joni Mitchell would finger-pick. There’s an upbeat energy pushing the songs forward, a driving rock and roll and wry wit behind sombre surface vibes. Take “Hi-Five.” Olsen captures a bitter kind of fun, the joy of commiseration, asking “Are you lonely too? Hi-five! So am I!”
The punk rock infusion and clever lyricism make Burn Your Fire fresh and exciting, but it’s Olsen’s cautious flirtation with darkness that takes the album the extra mile. Each song confronts a demon with varying degrees of subtlety. Olsen hits gold when she strays furthest into despair, channeling Leonard Cohen circa Songs of Love and Hate in the long, poetic ballad “White Fire.” She doesn’t linger, though; she never revisits that solemn tone again. She follows her own advice: If you still have some light in you, go before it’s gone.