On her previous two albums, Danish singer Agnes Obel has tended to keep it minimal, relying on the stark beauty of her piano and voice to create a beautifully otherworldly sound. On Obel’s third record, Citizen Of Glass, the sense of strangeness remains, but Obel has beefed up her sound somewhat.
Not that Citizen Of Glass is a massive departure from Philharmonics and Aventine – there’s a sense of fragility that runs through all of Obel’s material, something slightly delicate that feels like it’s lulling you out of a deep sleep. Opening track Stretch Your Eyes has a ghostly feel about it, with its elastic bass and gently lulling strings, but there’s a tension forever bubbling underneath.
It certainly feels like something of an evolution for Obel – there are all sorts of obscure instruments on show (including a monophonic synthesizer from the 1920s called a Trautonium) and she experiments with electronica effects and pitch-shifting vocals. On Familiar, she even adjusts her voice several octaves to duet with a male version of herself – not a new idea (it’s a technique that the young British singer Låpsley has defined herself by) but on tracks like Familiar, the effect is absolutely stunning.
It’s Happening Again marks a return to more vintage Obel, a haunting piano ballad with some sweeping strings, while the hypnotic title track recalls none other than Japanese instrumentalist Ryuichi Sakamoto. It’s the more experimental tracks that tend to bury themselves into the memory though, such as the multi-tracked vocals of Golden Green or the dramatic atmospherics of one of the album’s standout tracks, Trojan Horses.
Obel has described Citizens Of Glass as her first concept idea – exploring the idea that people have dismissed the idea of privacy and that, with the age of social media, are happy to publicise their innermost thoughts and feelings to all. This transparency doesn’t apply to Obel’s lyrics though which are as poetic and obtuse as ever, although the aforementioned Trojan Horses does hint at the subject – “these bare bones are made of glass, see through to the marrow as they pass” runs the opening line.
The death of Obel’s father in 2014 also inevitably shadows Citizens Of Glass – although there’s no direct references to mortality and loss, there’s a deep sense of sadness running through the record, especially in the two instrumentals, Grasshopper and Red Virginia Soil. There are hints of the dark folk of Marika Hackman at times, especially on the eerie, somewhat spooky ballad Stone.
Some earlier fans of Obel may miss the more minimal sound of her early albums, and there’s certainly no big crossover track that will propel Obel to the mainstream. This is a haunting listen though, and one that will provide suitable company as the long winter nights start to draw in.