Her music may not be a world away from some of her contemporaries, but the unlaboured beauty of her lyrics shine through at every turn.
With a critically lauded second album under her belt, a sold out show from Angel Olsen in Bristol’s Lantern was nothing but expected. If anything, it’s amazing it didn’t sell quicker. However, the evening doesn’t begin here; for that we must venture up the dizzying heights of Park Street on our way to Rise Records, where once you caught your breath, nestled inside the store with a beverage of your choosing, you’d be lucky to see a short acoustic set from Angel herself.
Aided with nothing more than an acoustic guitar, her voice carried the set through its four or five song course. Among these was ‘White Fire’, the lengthy standout from ‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’, to which the album owes its namesake.
Beginning on a deadpan ‘everything is tragic’ then cutting straight to the heart, Olsen’s sombre tone, sparse rhythmic guitar work and poetic capability pars her with notaries such as Leonard Cohen, Sharon Van Etten or Okkervil River’s Will Sheff. She’s an extremely capable singer-songwriter who delivers her songs with an air of grace that mesmerises her audience; each string on her guitar plucked like a single exposed nerve, eliciting responses in the range of tears to on-the-border-of. The stripped back vulnerability of the Rise set only accentuated this quality, and served as a potent introduction for the evening ahead.
Returning to the Lantern, the relatively unknown Jaye Bartell made an appearance on stage soon after the doors opened at eight. After a brief examination of the set-up and a mischievous nod to the audience, he began. Renditions from his latest LP, ‘Loyalty’, were mostly stripped of their full band sound, instead drawing heavily upon Bartell’s own bold voice and evocative guitar accompaniments. Like Olsen, Bartell’s songwriting capabilities rewarded fans and converted doubters, conjuring moods of anxiety, fear and loneliness, hope, love and loyalty, which pervade the lyrical depths and pensive baritone of his songs. Highlights included ‘Dance With Me’ and ‘Oldest Friend’, which Olsen both guested on, and ‘Lilly’.
Olsen’s set followed in a similar vein, but with full band set-up in tow. Her set was an assortment of old and new material – slightly overlapping with her earlier Rise set, including another rendition of ‘White Fire’, which made for an interesting contrast – as tracks from ‘Half Way Home’ and ‘Strange Cacti’ were mingled among cuts from her latest LP. Songs such as ‘High & Wild’, ‘Sweet Dreams’, and ‘Free’, for all their bluesy rock charm made up the more lively portion of the set, whereas ‘Tiniest Seed’ and ‘Drunk And With Dreams’ made up some of the swoony ‘alt-country’ denomination. Once again, Olsen’s vocal range was incomparable; her distinctive warbled harmonies stretching from dramatic highs to hushed, softly-spoken lows, which came across exceptionally clear in the settings of the Lantern. Olsen’s band too was on top form, performing at a comfortable volume that did not smother her earnest cabaret.
Considering the number of singer-songwriters who only make a fleeting impact on the music industry – here for a day, then gone tomorrow – it takes something truly spectacular to make a lasting impression. The vulnerable sap labouring their mock poetry to simple acoustics doesn’t cut it with audiences anymore; it’s been done to excess. What Olsen does then is truly commendatory. Her music may not be a world away from some of her contemporaries, but the unlaboured beauty of her lyrics shine through at every turn. Her stresses are thoughtful and varied, and not a word ever seems wasted. It is music to be savoured, to be listened to again and again, and while the subject matter may occasionally devastate, it also resonates deeply: for some, Olsen may well be heralded as the voice of her generation.
Check out ‘Hi-Five’ right here: