Agnes Obel: "Citizen of Glass"
Obel; Danhier, Koropecki, Labbow, Matz. Play It Again Sam Recordings PIASR905CDP
DANISH SINGER/SONGWRITER Agnes Obel derived the title of her third studio album from the gläserner Bürger, a term that arose in 1980s Germany to describe the modern citizen’s transparency and lack of privacy in an age of government surveillance. But the Berlin-based Obel is subtle in her approach; there’s nothing overtly political about this album. Rather, she flirts with the topic only through traditional poetic imagery that takes on a secondary Orwellian significance. Eyes, for instance, are a recurring motif; the track “Stone” opens with the lyrics “They say every sin will have a thousand eyes,” and its chorus has Obel longing for an opaque head made of stone.
Obel’s brand of chamber pop is delicate and refined. Perhaps to evoke the surface of glass, she layers piano, marimba and mandolin ostinatos to create glistening minimalist accompaniments based on only two or three alternating chords. Out of this slither sensual cello lines laden with portamento. Various odd keyboards—both Baroque and vintage electronic—lend a touch of quirk and twang. At times, it can verge on the generic sound of an indie-flick soundtrack or ambient airport Muzak. Otherwise, Obel forges an unpretentious and genuinely lovely style that combines the best elements of classical, popular, folk and world musics. In the opening number, “Stretch Your Eyes,” ocarinas, heavy breathing and ritualistic drumming evoke shamanistic lyrics that describe ghosts and ancient gods (or is it the NSA?) who look down on us and control our fates. Satie is an obvious influence for the title track as well as the instrumental interlude “Grasshopper,” both of which incorporate dreamy, grace-note-studded piano melodies reminiscent of the Gymnopédies or Gnossiennes. The album consists of mostly mid-tempo, nocturne-like ballads, contributing to the mood of uncertainty and melancholia that pervades Citizen of Glass. Unfortunately, this also means some of the tracks blur together.
Vocally, Obel calls to mind Enya; simple, expansive melodies amplified with heavy reverb give her that kind of “new age” sound. She has a virtuoso command of vocal timbre, exploring various shades—bluesy and full-throated; breathy and adolescent; glassy and floating. In the bluegrass-tinged “Familiar,” she digitally lowers her voice to take on the male role in a love duet with herself. This vocal experimentation can obscure the text, for better or worse. Obel is especially fond of choruses that repeat a short, mantra-like phrase until it loses its meaning: “it’s happening” becomes “zebbenin,” and “it’s coming at” becomes “scominah.” It’s sometimes effective, but elsewhere, this stylized pronunciation, coupled with poor diction, makes it almost impossible to pick up on her cleverly veiled political commentary. —Joe Cadagin