Album Reviews

Agnes Obel – Philharmonics

(PIAS) UK release date: 4 October 2010

Time is cruel to beauty. Much that is lovely will falter, and the greater its former splendour the clearer its decline. The wilting of a flower. The crumbling of once-great architecture. Madonna. And so it is with music. Some examples?

In 1994, Enigma‘s Return To Innocence seemed like a soul-affirming reach into our collective inner mystic. Today, it’s a cringe-worthy turd of a song with all the mysticism of Derek Acorah. And in 2006, our collective hearts beat with the twinkled ache of Jose Gonzalez‘ soft-hewn meanderings. Yet, what once was life-affirming is now as inspiring as the beige waiting-room in a hospice for synesthetes. It’s the curse of any song with a vein of emotion to age badly, and few mature unhexed. It’s like reading an old diary – every entry of heartbreak once meant so much, but now they only make you wince at the bare sentimentality. Does anyone still listen to Damien Rice without wishing he’d just cheer up? Really? You do? Go write in your diary…

So what future for Agnes Obel? The Copenhagen-born songbird is best known for soundtracking a corporate ad campaign (for Deutsche Telekom) and going cross-genre by doing a heartfelt reworking of a well-known hit (John Cale‘s I Keep A Close Watch). So far, so Gonzalez. And her debut album, Philharmonics, is full of exactly that emotive beauty that could be so easily ravaged by that cynical passing of time. Yet are all so easily flawed?

Philharmonics is a sparse and haunting first listen. Obel sings with a hushed and tender grace that waxes wistful and serene over yearning cello, harp, and piano vignettes. She’s a fey siren, with a dusky, near-whispered vocal that speaks to Ane Brun or Eva Cassidy. And all three accentuate the voice with pared, subtle arrangements that are all the more engaging in their simplicity.

Yet Obel is more evocative, more cinematic, than these. The voice has a broader range, touching on the sass of Karen Elson in the upbeat Beast; and the spectral edge of Imogen Heap in the harmonic refrains of Avenue. And Brother Sparrow, and title track Philharmonics, have a sense of backstory akin to John Grant in his recent Queen Of Denmark. Obel’s work is more than a string of dulcet moments because the vocal is only part of a theme – of a motif echoed in the well-chosen instrumentation, from the playful harp to the portents and rumbles of her much loved piano. In her own words: “I don’t see myself as a singer that plays piano. The piano and the singing are two equal things to me – maybe not inseparable but very connected. You can say they are like two equal voices.” In this, Philharmonics has the sense of craft you find with Patrick Watson – albeit more sombre for its touching, unfussy structures.

So how will it age? Philharmonics is certainly beautiful. Return listens reveal more of Obel’s rich imagery and faultless voice, and if it lures you in it will always tempt you back. The same, in truth, will be true of Gonzalez and Rice, and even that old diary won’t be thrown away. Any moment of beauty can seem at odds with the present, but they all have something timeless. There are enough of those moments on Philharmonics to ensure that time will treat it well.

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More on Agnes Obel
Agnes Obel – Myopia
Agnes Obel – Citizen Of Glass
Agnes Obel @ Somerset House, London
Agnes Obel – Aventine
Agnes Obel – Philharmonics