Sean Nelson is a writer, musician, and actor. His solo album, Make Good Choices, is available on Really Records. He is an editor at The Stranger. He currently lives in Seattle. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Talkhouse writers are musicians, and they write with a passion, insight, poetry and empathy that you’re just not going to find anywhere else. That’s why we’d rank the best writing in the Talkhouse with the best music writing anywhere. This week, we’re celebrating some of our favorite Talkhouse pieces of 2014.
— Michael Azerrad, Talkhouse editor-in-chief
Having spent the better (obviously the wrong word) part of my listening life in a thralldom to both severe depression and the saddest music I can get my hands on, I’ve started to question my methods. I’ve been wondering whether listening to sad music is a treatment for melancholia or a symptom of it. Does its allure correspond to the nature of emotional inertia (objects in despair tend to stay in despair) or is it a function of the disease itself, prolonging its own tyranny, convincing you to select the sounds that will allow its favorable conditions to prevail? Is it inclination or Stockholm Syndrome? Indulgence or debauchery? Love, baby, or just confusion?
I’ve had all this on the brain lately because my wife has been on tour in New Zealand for the last month and a half, and I’ve been home alone with our dog and a copy of the new Angel Olsen record, which I can’t stop listening to, despite the certain knowledge that its powerful sadness is contributing to my overwhelming tendency to spiral into oblivion. I should clarify: Burn Your Fire For No Witness is a lot more than an excuse to fall apart. In many ways, its very existence is an argument that not falling apart is, in fact, a much better plan. Nevertheless, the album is thematically and tonally suffused with heartbreak. Each song is a demonstration of the way genuine sadness — love-sadness — subjugates the consciousness, re-routing all conversation back to the insoluble mystery, unquenchable anger, and incurable hurt that attends the death of a relationship. Every savage “you” and every sundered “we” discloses longing, regret, recrimination, resignation, resolve. The album is a portrait of a woman struggling to machete through these tangled emotions, because plainly, getting around them is not an option. And yet, Burn Your Fire For No Witness is neither mawkish nor vulgar. It’s a sublime work not because it has the most feelings, but because of the frame Olsen’s craft hangs around them. If it were just sad, it might serve a purpose, but it would just as likely be forgettable, because everyone is sad sometimes. Sadness is the subject and the object. The album becomes a survey of the range of conflicting feelings and impulses that issue from the source. The power of the writing lies as much in its murmured inner dialogue as in its wails of anger and sorrow. Sometimes it’s clear she’s addressing the words to a freshly absent ex, like when she sings “All is forgiven” and “All is forgotten” on “Forgiven/Forgotten,” (I, for one, don’t believe her) then confesses that “If there’s one thing I fear, it’s knowing you’re around/so close, but not with me here.”
Meanwhile, the the fuzzy western swing of “Hi-Five” (which opens with a nod to Hank Williams) might describe an ill-fated attempt to move on with someone new. “We don’t have to take it too extreme… but I’m giving you my heart, my heart.” When she sings the refrain “Are you lonely, too?” in a gentle self-harmony, you feel invited to answer yes, yes, of course. How could anyone not be lonely? Then she slides right back with a jolt of humor (“High five! So am I!”) But before the foam dissolves on the beer, she extends the line into a more disturbing inner life excavation: “All your life/stuck inside/I’m stuck, too/I’m stuck with you/Do you believe?”
Olsen’s voice is an astonishing instrument. It has the power to ensorcel you into believing you’ve known it intimately for your whole life even though you only just heard it for the first time 20 seconds ago. Her two previous releases — Strange Cacti, a miraculous little EP of stark solo recordings, and Half Way Home, a less miraculous full-length — felt like efforts to channel the volcanic resource of her singing. Though her talent was never less than flagrant, the style choices occasionally substituted anachronism for timelessness. There’s no mistaking Olsen’s command on this record, however. Several songs here maintain established spare hush (disconsolate opener “Unfucktheworld” and the bleakly blunt “Enemy”), while others adopt arrangements far more rock & roll than anything we’ve heard from her before.
On “High & Wild” (which sounds uncannily like the missing link between Opal and Mazzy Star) a jangling, nervous “All Tomorrow’s Parties”-esque piano figure forms a perfect textural bed with the jerky, stop-start drums, never overwhelming the sound of the voice, but giving it clearance to wail.
“Stars” is a wrenching relapse, the 3:00 AM phone call you wish you hadn’t made. “I think you like to see me lose my mind,” it begins, as a sound that is either a wildly treated electric guitar or a grindy transistor organ snakes out to mimic the near hysteria of the song’s conflict. “I wish I had the voice of everything,” sings the singer (who kind of does have the voice of everything), “to scream the animals, to scream the earth/to scream the stars out of the universe/to scream it all back into nothingness/to scream the feeling ‘til there’s nothing left.” Two telling details: Olsen doesn’t give in to the temptation to act out this scene. She’s singing the words, frankly and forthrightly. She’s not screaming them. And in the next verse she wants the voice of everything “to sing the animals, to sing the earth/to sing the stars into our universe/to sing it all back into something new/to sing for life for myself maybe you.” It’s the kind of declaration that costs you something just for being vulnerable enough to make it. And so she relents, retreats. “I close my eyes and try to breathe for a while.”
The album’s showstopper, “Dance Slow Decades,” starts with a list of parallels — things she believed and wanted, contrasted with what she found out. But then she gets direct, addressing the problematic figure head on: “I can hear you crying, and I’m crying too/The world might be lying but so are you.” Then she conjures the eternal romantic signifier: “I can see you dancing,” she offers, “if you’d only take the step/you might still have it in you/Give yourself…” but by the time she even makes it to the end of the couplet — “the benefit” — she no longer sounds convinced. But she continues, because the song is inside her, and the most heroic lines of the record follow: “And dance slow decades, toward the sun, even if you’re the only one/Don’t look around: it’s not right… it’s not wrong/Dance because you know the song.” That song, that verse, that last line, is such a sad victory. It’s the moment when hope gets reintroduced to the scene — just not for them.
I stood on the thin rug in the kitchen of our apartment in Seattle last week, listening to “Dance Slow Decades” on repeat, while the dog looked at me impassively. I bet I listened to it seven or eight times, and each time a violent little brace of tears bolted up in my head like a sneeze, at the koan-like “Dance because you know the song” (which I was also singing, in a nice harmony, I don’t mind admitting). I cried because I felt isolated and unknowable, and because the person who knows me best was in another hemisphere, and because, frankly, the prospect of dancing in public freezes my joints with phobic dread. For me, crying at home, listening to records with the dog is not news. But this was: As the song cranked up again, I found I was dancing. Just a little non-committal waltz step, arms out to lead a phantom partner. Because I knew the song. I didn’t do this very long. I stopped when I realized I was still crying. A tear plopped onto the palm of my pantomiming hand. The dog looked concerned. It was time to take a break.
So I listened to the album’s closer, and only real departure, “Windows.” After a lengthy holding pattern, Olsen sings in her delicate, implausibly beautiful head voice, making the lyrical case that it might finally be time to hang up the shroud, rejoin the land of the living. As the brushed drums build, guitar, bass, and organ poised, she asks herself: “Won’t you open a window sometime? What’s so wrong with the light?” then they all crash in for a brief series of repetitions of a chorus that would sound at home in the climactic episode of an HBO drama. It could be an augury of Olsen’s next musical phase, or just a triumphant denouement to a most triumphant album. Either way, it sends the message that while the sadness isn’t something she’s likely to forget, she’s no longer in its thrall.
That’s more than I can say for myself. Good thing she left me this record.