Words Are Dead – Agnes Obel
40:57 min • Play It Again Sam • September 30, 2013
Andrew Darley reviews
There is no denying the expectations placed on Agnes Obel for this album. After her humble debut struck a chord in the hearts of many of her native Danes as well as throughout Europe, the record’s attention swiftly shone a bright light on the singer-songwriter, earning her double platinum sales, several music awards and soundtracking many television ad campaigns. The delicate and intimate world of Philharmonics became something more than anticipated. The vast recognition may have come as a surprise both to the public and Obel, discovered through a MySpace demo back in 2009.
When it came time to begin its follow-up, Obel was fully equipped and prepared for the challenge. She started writing new material as soon as the first album was complete and performed these new songs during her tour to develop them. Aventine, taking its name from one of the seven hills Rome was built on, chimes in with ‘Chord Left’. Opening with an instrumental, Obel offers a connection between her first album and her new work; maintaining the beautiful directness of Philharmonics, whilst suggesting a subtly more detailed composition. The instrumental is constructed on the pulse of minor notes, whilst higher ones loftily twinkle with the song’s melody. It is these two contrasting ideas that she carries throughout the album; an almost haunting atmosphere complimented by elegant and uplifting piano arrangements.
‘Fuel To Fire’ is the second song of the album and is one of the first written pieces of the album, dating from 2010. The song opens with her painfully honest question “Do you want me on your mind or do you want me to go home?” as the song deals with her weariness and confusion. Following that, ‘Dorian’ (the title is not fashioned after Wilde’s character) regards a failing and suspenseful relationship between two people as she gently urges him to “carry on”. Whilst, lead single ‘The Curse’ identifies both the cruelty and beauty of human memory and the importance we place on it. Here, the album reaches one of it heights, showcasing her gorgeous voice as she weaves the infectious melody of the verses. Its rhythm is based on the repetitious plucking of strings that draws in folk elements and she includes an effective pause nearing its conclusion, before ushering in the song’s final refrain, which packs a powerful punch.
It may seem like an obvious comparison, but Aventine’s tone and attention to detail is reminiscent of the aesthetic Tori Amos carved out early in her career. The recognizable parallel between both artists is their allegiance to the piano as the main instrument of their work. However, similarities run deeper than that. Both artists are as much informed by classical composers as they are contemporary influences. The delicate piano patterns and chord progressions they write and sculpt juxtapose a strength and weakness in the character of their songs. Obel is able to explore and wrestle with several emotions within each song, which brings to mind the energy of some of Tori’s most revered songs, such as ‘Horses’ and ‘Cloud On My Tongue’. There are moments on Aventine like ‘Pass Them By’ that wrap the listener in its introspective and almost otherworldly ambiance that further recalls the accompanying soundtrack to 1982 Christmas animation The Snowman. The way she blends the piano, voice and backing instruments together holds an endearing beauty in the same way the ‘80s cartoon captured people’s imaginations.
Some artists may have become self-conscious, overthinking or doubtful of themselves following the sort of fast success Obel obtained with her debut. However, the Danish singer has held her nerve and focus in order to deliver a sequel that is more engaging and precisely executed. It seems appropriate that Obel should choose an ancient word of ‘Aventine’ to represent this album. There is a timelessness and air of history to these songs, whilst remaining very much in the present. It reflects on both time past and wishes hope for the time to come through its lyrics, which feels both meditative and romantic. It seems even more fitting that she should release the album in the year’s final quarter. The warmth and life that glows from this album evokes an image of the singer sitting comfortably at a piano on a winter’s night, with snow lightly falling outside, while she sings these songs by candlelight.