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Angel Olsen: A Voice Of Confounding Power

Angel Olsen.
Zia Anger
Courtesy of the artist
Angel Olsen.

Angel Olsen begins the song "Hi-Five" by paraphrasing Hank Williams, admitting she's so lonesome she could cry. She goes on to say she just wants someone who believes in love as urgently as she does. The twanging guitar throbbing beneath these sentiments suggests that it's going to be a long, lonely search. Over a matter of minutes, Olsen has created the landscape she'll inhabit for an entire album.

Frequently on the new Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Olsen makes her voice echo and float in back of the guitars, keyboards and drums, surging forward to assert her ethereal loneliness, her periodic angry frustration. In "High and Wild," her voice is elusive but her sentiments could not be more direct: "You're gone, you're gone, you're with me but you're gone." It's a complete musical representation of being stuck with someone who doesn't want to be with you, even as you're insisting that that someone should want you. Olsen knows it's a loser's game, but she plays it anyway. This takes its own kind of nerve. Olsen can also make this sort of self-torture sound utterly beautiful, as on the gorgeously languid "Iota."

Burn Your Fire For No Witness is Olsen's first album with a backing band, and she makes great use of it. Her singing contains a naturally mysterious quality, at once confiding and baffling, even unknowable. On a song such as "Forgiven/Forgotten," Olsen has the drums and bass guitar hammer away at her dented vocal. This creates the sound of someone beating herself up for being so obsessed with being in love, knowing that that's not enough, for her or for the object of her love.

There are moments on this album when Olsen sings shamelessly sentimental, self-pitying words that are instantly contradicted and raised in admirable complexity by the tone of her voice, her sharp phrasing, the arrangements she applies to her melodies. She's immensely shrewd about the differences between what someone says and what someone means. For the length of this album, she's created a world in which she can share a desperation that ends up seeming triumphant and strong.

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Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.