Sparseness. It’s a much undervalued commodity these days – everything has to be intense, in your face, and hurtling along at 100mph. Work it, twerk it, go viral and never, ever take a breath to rest, for fear that the next bright young thing could take your place. Thankfully, this is a mindset that has no place in Agnes Obel‘s world.
Obel’s debut album, Philharmonics, was something of a phenomenon in her native Denmark. Since its release in 2010, it’s won several Danish music awards, sold enough copies to certify it as double platinum and its austere beauty has led to some of its songs finding their way into films and TV soundtracks. She’s still something of an unknown on this side of the North Sea, and while this follow-up probably won’t change that, it gives another chance to examine what makes Obel so good at what she does.
Aventine, like its predecessor, is stark, quiet and frail. The mood is set from the start, with the gorgeous piano instrumental Chord Left, before the sultry Fuel To Fire glides in. It’s just Obel, her piano and an unobstrutive string section, and it sounds heartstoppingly good. Like her compatriot Jannis Noya Makrigiannis from Choir Of Young Believers, Obel has the uncanny ability to create dark, dramatic music that tugs at the heartstrings, while also managing to hint at darker times ahead. Maybe it’s something in the Copenhagen water.
Although the basic sound of Aventine is similar to Philharmonics, there does seem to be a more rounded approach taken this time around. Take the lead single The Curse for example, which could almost be described as baroque folk, as Obel’s piano almost skips around the strings, reminiscent of Tori Amos‘ best work. Run Cried begins like a lost soundtrack to Twin Peaks, shimmering with sadness as Obel’s impossibly mournful vocals send shivers down the spine.
The Crawling is another stately instrumental, the only downside to which is that we’re only treated to 90 seconds of Obel’s piano chords. Yet as this fades into the gothic, ghostly beauty of Tokka, it’s impossible not to feel too robbed. Obel’s lyrics are as mysterious and poetic as her music, with The Curse talking of “the curse will come from the underground down by the shore, where all grow even hunger to live like before”, although its setting an atmosphere that Obel really excels at – as the beautifully glacial Dorian proves.
Certainly, some people will find Aventine a bit hard to take – at first listen, it sounds so pleasant it just washes over, and it’s only on repeated plays that its dark mysteries reveal itself. It’s also true that the pace barely raises above a mild trot, which could succeed in lulling you off to sleep. Yet the likes of Anna Calvi and Nadine Shah have proved that there’s certainly a market for cerebral and atmospheric dark pop, and if there’s any justice, Obel should really be repeating her success at home over here.