by Frances Molina
I was introduced to Angel Olsen and her music about two days before I would see her in concert. Front row, sleepy-eyed and swaying along with all the other twenty-somethings that crowded the little stage at the back of the bar for a glimpse of Angel. At the time I had only listened to a couple of her songs from her latest album and some of her earlier records. But the show was spectacular. Angel has an absolutely magnetic stage presence.
She thrums softly at her guitar, imprecise but still perfect, and stares as if hypnotized into the darkness high above the crowd. And then suddenly a smile breaks her face and she giggles as though something – or someone – delightful has caught her eye and broken her melancholic trance. It wasn’t until after I had a full listen to her first full-band release Burn Your Fire for No Witness that I realized how closely her performance style mirrors the songs themselves. Complicated, sensual, intense, and unexpectedly light-hearted.
Angel’s sound is unique yet familiar. Alternative folk. As if Patsy Cline’s kid sister started a garage band. The guitar is erratic, eruptive, as if the melodies were fraying, but she carries them just fine, murmuring and hollering out the lyrics by turns. In “Unfucktheworld”, arguably one of the bluest records on the album, Angel warbles with low sweet sound, lovesick and empty in the wake of what-ifs and unfulfilled possibility. The song ends with a concentrated mantra – “I am the only one now” – an intonation that somehow manages to reassure you of Angel’s self-righteous resilience. And sure enough, the next two songs – “Forgiven/Forgotten” and “Hi-Five” – return with unexpected punch, suddenly upbeat and content, almost elated, to be lonesome or unhappy. The rest of the album follows this sort of pattern, a steady ebb and flow of doleful, trembling ballads and furious declarations of spirit and strength. And this is perhaps what draws me most to Angel Olsen and her music, this fullness of emotion; unsophisticated and unruly in its expression. Her songs are not love songs – they are songs about love, honest in their fear, their joy, their anger, and their naivety. She sings about dreamers, wishful thinkers, loners confined to their thoughts but unrestrained by their emotions – truly romantic, charming figures.
This sort of raw, deeply introspective song-writing runs the risk of being too much. Too miserable, too sappy, too dark, or too self-obsessed. But it is hard not to find Olsen just as endearing as her haunting melodies. Burn Your Fire for No Witness comes highly recommended this winter season for just about anyone who can appreciate vulnerability, passion, pain. You might not be in love but Angel’s music might surely make you want to be.