Album review: Agnes Obel – Citizen of Glass

John Preston

South London based music obsessive with strong opinions about most things. Doubts Madonna has another good record in her but would love more than anything to be proved wrong.
John Preston

The conceptual conceit that drives Agnes Obels’s third album Citizen of Glass – contemporary societal pressure to be completely translucent and relinquish privacy – along with the use of instrumentation not previously employed by the Danish singer-song writer may lead you to believe that this is a reinvention of sorts; this is not the case. Agnes Obel makes the kind of melancholic but warming folk, chamber-pop that is often associated with her native Scandinavia and Citizen of Glass does not much deviate from this. What Obel has achieved with this new set of songs, and what is very much in-keeping with the album’s fascination with glass as an object, is a representation of human life told with a sharper view – and sound – then before.

‘Stretch Your Eyes’, Citizen of Glass‘ opening song, continues Obel’s on-going dependence and skilled use of strings. Here, over a bare and slowly cantering rhythm, violins and violas first droop and then plunge dramatically over a cliff top that looks out to a barren and desolate landscape. The orchestral presence on this track is a masterful one that seems reluctant to share top billing, even with Obel’s layered and icy vocals. It’s a great opening and one which presents the artist as newly energised and darkly focused. ‘It’s Happening Again’ might at first sound less menacing, but the warning of its title bears true with a graceful and exquisite march to some kind of existential dread of stuck time.

‘Golden Green’ disconcerts mainly due to its likeness to Alison Goldfrapp in its bold, multiple harmonies; and whilst it might be the most immediate and accessible song here, Obel hasn’t quite made the pop-song that the electronic duo specialise in but is one that would brightly sparkle on radio play. A simple, harp-plucked folk song like the delicately austere, and beautiful, ‘Stone’ could have appeared on any Obel album to date but her songwriting has improved significantly over the last six years or so, as can be heard on the title track’s gorgeous chord refrains and repetitions. The haunted ‘Trojan Horse’ is an assertive gothic mid-album highlight, Obel almost wailing out protestations whilst suspended between spaced out orchestrations and keyboards.

Following on from previous tradition Obel, somewhat frustratingly, includes two diverting instrumental tracks which ultimately only serve as filler when compared to the work surrounding them. Tracks like ‘Familiar’, where Obel’s duets with a pitched down version of herself, swould be more welcomed. ‘Mary’ ends the album with a piano based-ballad that is reminiscent of a Tori Amos’ mid-90s album track, solid enough but not with the commercial hooks that this singer’s singles were famous for. It’s a sombre but simultaneously warmer sound than the album’s worth of material that preceded it and sounds more like the Obel heard on her previous records.

Its a subtle difference to be sure, but the Agnes Obel of Citizen of Glass is more confident and pleasingly confrontational. In a genre that can sometimes be a little too safe and comfy for its own good, this is a welcome change indeed.

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