AGNES OBEL: CITIZEN OF GLASS (2016)
1) Stretch Your Eyes; 2) Familiar; 3) Red Virgin Soil; 4) It's Happening Again; 5) Stone; 6) Trojan Horses; 7) Citizen Of Glass; 8) Golden Green; 9) Grasshopper; 10) Mary.
At the very least, she deserves some credit here for finally deciding to branch out and diversify the formula. No major changes, that is, but at least this time around, it gets harder to confuse her with the average sentimental piano balladeer — if only because there's less piano around and more strings, as well as more variegated keyboards, a mix of acoustic (vibraphones, etc.) and old-fashioned electric stuff like the Mellotron and even the Trautonium, a real electronic relic hauled straight out of the 1930s. Apparently, this is the first instrument to be heard here, producing the odd siren wail in the intro to ʽStretch Your Eyesʼ and immediately setting an atmosphere of distant alarm — always distant, of course, because the protagonist of all of Obel's songs lives in a perfectly shielded bunker; as long as she confines herself to that place, she's perfectly safe from all the troubles above.
The title of the album apparently translates the German term gläserner bürger, and is used to define a (human) object of mass surveillance, but do not think that the lady goes into politics here, or into morbid ruminations on humanity's dystopian future (unless you really want to interpret a line like "we took a walk to the summit at night, you and I" as a documentary description of an imaginary meeting between Russian and American presidents). It is more of a hint at herself, I believe, and how she's got nothing to hide, a predictably irritating paradox in the light of the fact that she is still hiding everything that is possible to hide, because a straightforward interpretation of any of these songs remains out of the question.
The songs do get more complex in structure, and it gets harder to shoo any of them away as just another melancholic waltz — in fact, I suspect that somebody must have told her to lay off the waltzing, because the time signatures here tend to get less and less trivial; not challenging enough to approach avantgarde levels, but diverse and unpredictable enough to lay off any accusations of laziness. She is clearly interested in exploring the possibilities of classical and «retro-modern» instrumentation in the modern studio, and I respect that. I only wish that the songs had been as memorable as they were on Philharmonics, which is still not the case, alas.
Atmosphere-wise, ʽStretch Your Eyesʼ is clearly an improvement over most of Aventine. The combination of whale-like synthesizer sounds with the quietly, but firmly plucked strings and bowed cellos really gives it a sort of «walking under water» feel, a perfect backdrop for an equally glorious performance... but this is where the song falls short, because other than her usual «frozen lady of the lake» tone, Agnes does not reward the instrumental mix with any outstanding moments of vocal magic; actually, she's no better and no worse than Lana Del Rey now in this department, although I'd still take her instrumental compositions over Lana's in a whiff.
On ʽFamiliarʼ, she makes an awful mistake by having the chorus sung by an uncredited male performer who sounds like Antony Hegarty (oh, sorry, Anohni) with a particularly sore throat, turning the song from something that was distinctly Agnes Obel into something else that is even more distinctly not. I know it's supposed to be a you-and-I duet and all, but in her own singing, even when it is hookless, she manages to avoid theatrical mannerisms and come across as a real human being — so why is she taking a walk to the summit at night with a guy who sounds as if he wouldn't really be interested in girls in the first place? Also, the music here is getting way too dangerously close to New Age values, even for my tastes.
Still, I cannot get truly angry at most of these songs. The title track, for instance, has something Eno-like about it in its soothing piano and vocal harmony ambience. ʽStoneʼ does the same with acoustic guitar (and actually adds a strange vocal hook, which always sounded like "stone canopy, stone canopy" to me until I learned that it was really the artist asking herself whether she can be of stone — do not worry, Frøken Obel, you are of stone, in way... or should that be fiberglass? Citizen Of Fiberglass, yes, that would be a good title).
Anyway, without going into too much detail on the rest of this stuff: she is still getting a good sound of all these instruments, and, technically, she remains an above-average composer, but the new twists and expansions do not change my base impression that she has already made her single most important statement, and that she is going to spend the rest of her life just bathing us in the somewhat shapeless beauty of her impressionistic approach. Which is nice and all, but as long as she is incapable of finding any particularly heart-tugging soundwave configurations, I do not find myself interested in trying to decode her enigmatic messages, or defining the types of persons to whom her sorrowful and subtle music would appeal the most. Perhaps she should try coming out of that bunker? Or at least, exchange it for a less soft-padded one?..