Completely baffled by the critical reception at Burn Your Fire for No Witness, I suspect I’ll be baffled once more. Upfront: there’s nothing original about Angel Olsen’s music. This is just more frail female vocals over lo-fi indie rock a la 90s that people get all nostalgic for; I’ve heard comparisons to Liz Phair (sans the subversion, of course) and Hope Sandoval (which isn’t fair, because Angel Olsen at least sings with physical power that Hope was frankly incapable of or uninterested in). I guess we should just be thankful she’s not being compared to Bjork or Kate Bush, which every woman needs to be compared to.
That Angel Olsen will likely take the indiesphere by a bigger storm this time around rests on two key factors: she sings pretty and her lyrics are sincere. Or, I suppose, you could read them as naïve, but whatever the case, it’s a welcome change from the irony that pervades the genre. Regardless of my feelings of the album as a whole, “Hi-Five”’s bridge remains one of my favorite moments of 2014 because of those two factors: “Are you lonely too? HI-FIVE! So am I!”, a well-delivered and unpretentious lyric in the hell-hole of that year. Plus, the song had the benefit of a nice bounce of a country-inspired bass.
That all happens again on My Woman: bass-lines distinguish “Give It Up” and are present in all of the second half except the closer. And opener/teaser “Intern” is a good example as any for both her voice and lyric. Over spare, starry synths, Olsen eventually shifts her voice into a falsetto for the outro: “Pick up the phone but I swear it’s the last time / Falling in love and I swear it’s the last time.” It’s obvious it won’t be the last time, but she hopes anyway. (Olsen has said that the minimalistic synth backdrop of the song has garnered comparisons to Lana Del Rey. To be clear: the song isn’t emblematic of the sound throughout the rest of the album, merely a stage-setter. And furthermore, she’s a lot more honest than Lana Del Rey will ever be.)
If Burn Your Fire was a punchier affair than her hushed and humble debut, this one logically takes another step in that direction. Thank producer Justin Raisen, known for other mainstream pop-stars that are accepted in indie circles including Charli XCX and Sky Ferreira. And while Justin Raisen does scrub the lo-fi guitar pop/rock songs clean and make them – again – punchier, he also brings with him, unfortunately, the pristine (read: anti-septic) production of the 80s for this album’s second half when it gets into the sparer, slower stuff. In other words, it’s a two-fold nostalgia box-checker, this one: you get the 90s’ indie stuff and the 80s’ production! But songs like piano ballad “Pops” and heavy syncopated guitar of “Heart Shaped Face” are rendered emotionless because of the dentist-office production. By contrast, “Those Were the Days” fares better because of the way she oscillates her vocals for the hook and because the drums have a garbage-pail umph to them.
There’s no point in trying to deny some of the album’s tunes. Of particular note in the first half is single “Shut Up Kiss Me”, the album’s best hook (punctuated by the guitar and drums) and plenty of other things to note. There’s the powerful and sassy singing, bolstered by reverb (“Tell me what you think and don’t dela-hey-hey”) in the first half, and the way she flickers her voice in the second-half (“I could take it down to the flo-or”). In the background, there’s the ghostly backing vocals that appear in the second half of the song that materialize into something more powerful for the final instance of the chorus. And of course, there’s the tuneful guitar solo-as-outro. Similarly, more great singing to be found on “Never Be Mine” (the way she sighs the melody on “I go blind, every time”) with some sturdy drum-rolls pushing the song forward.
But crucially, I don’t think the two long tracks are at all deserving of their lengths or, I’m sure, the acclaim either will receive. Of course, both tracks are informed by emotion: “Sister” is about Angel Olsen’s imagining what it would be like to have a sister; “Woman” has the key line of “I dare you to understand what makes me a woman,” which is precisely when that song hits its climax and catharsis. But both songs are identical in structure and sound: they both canoe their way to climax, then die down, and then crescendo again. But after the climax of “Woman,” the song proceeds to die down in a swimming pool of reverb. A buzzing guitar gets thrown in to half-heartedly push the song to its second crescendo, which, in comparison to the exact same trick in “Sister”, doesn’t nearly come off as well.
I’ll grant it this: it’s more ambitious than her last one; better too. But I simply don’t think the formulaic songwriting is worthy of praise, nor the very notion of being more ambitious. Nor do I think the anti-septic production of the second half to be the best fit for her sound. Put it this way: reading Raisen’s resume, I learned that he also lent a hand by writing a few songs for Ariel Pink’s Pom Pom. That one had that 80s’ production too, but the difference was Pink was being unsubtly ironic about it. This one treats it sincerely. Or rather, naively.