ALBUM: Aventine ARTIST: Agnes Obel
Album release date: September 30, 2013
Dark, ambiguous skies heavy with rain, as though on the verge of letting loose their ancient grief. Strangers moving by in the streets, each with his or her secret thoughts, fears, and hopes; each a universe of meaning and pain. Snatches of stories from childhood remembered and believed in the ominous silence of a forest: a fearful awe of the unknown. An insatiable yearning for mystery, untapped by the peculiar hue of evening sunlight as it cradles a tombstone, or a loved one’s collarbone, or a table-top. The cosmic implications of a fingerprint; the complex simplicity of a perfectly paired set of notes, ringing out into space.
Agnes Obel, a shy, soft-spoken woman from Denmark, has the ability to awaken the mind to these realities. Obel’s music has a singular beauty to it; a beauty that leaves you feeling wistful but loved, similar to the sensation of trying to remember the fading details of a beloved memory. Aventine, her second album, is exquisitely sad, but never despairing.
Obel grew up in an unusual and artistic home, surrounded by the odd instruments and heirlooms her father was compelled to collect, and listening to her mother play Bartok and Chopin on the piano. She took classical piano lessons from a young age, and was encouraged by her teacher to play whatever she liked, and nothing of what she didn’t. Through childhood and adolescence she honed her creative propensities, and when she was in her twenties she moved to Berlin in order to pursue a career in music more seriously. Since moving there, she has recorded and produced two albums – Philharmonics, in 2010, which was met with much applause; and Aventine in 2013. Both peaked at No. 1 on the charts in Denmark and Belgium.
Eerily Lovely & Exquisitely Arranged
A friend recommended Aventine to me last year; but it wasn’t until this October that I finally sat down to listen to it. The cover creeped me out a bit, as it is rather Hitchcock: just a silhouette of a woman against a menacing, glowing red backdrop. But even as it impressed me with its eeriness, it simultaneously struck me with its unusual loveliness. Turns out this effect was a foretaste of the sonic atmosphere contained therein.
The album starts with an instrumental, Chord Left. The arrangement is simple but arresting, and Obel’s classical training and expertise are apparent. As the right-hand melody-line dances down scales and into plaintive minor notes, the left hand pulses gently in the lower register; and a cinematic sense of drama imbues the tune. Without saying a word, Agnes Obel paints a collage of images.
Throughout the rest of the album, the piano is like a second set of Obel’s lungs: it sings out just as plainly as her own hushed, crystalline voice, and carries just as much of this mysterious woman’s story. The next three songs, Fuel to Fire, Dorian, and Aventine are laconic, telling stories in broken, esoteric phrases about the bittersweet cycles of life and death, the frustration of a relationship going up in flames, and the experience of sojourning into the wildness in the hopes of finding something beyond (respectively). The musical arrangements are the cornerstone and focal-piece of each of these songs, and they carry the sparse lyrics powerfully, like rich soil enveloping and cultivating a single unremarkable seed.
The song Run Cried the Crawling (what a name!) strongly reminded me of the fascinating and brilliant multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird’s song Section 8 City. Same plucking, ethereal, shimmering movement, with tender vocals that dip up and down. Obel’s song seems to be less about the words and more about the instrumentation of the voice: the meaning of the song is never clear. It’s lullaby-like swells and contours reminds me of finding an old notepad with half-formed thoughts scrawled here and there, snatches of some past urgent thought that no longer holds as much weight as it evidently once did.
Words Are Dead, which falls near the end of the album, expresses Agnes’ philosophy of language and its usage. “I want to buy you roses,” she begins, “Because the words are dead.” In a few sparse, simple lines, Miss Obel asserts that words aren’t the only way to share oneself, and sometimes they’re not the most valuable manner of communicating. Our words die with us, and in the end it won’t be the things we said to others that will be remembered: it will be the things we did for them, the ways we sacrificed for them. Piano takes the lead on this song, and Agnes uses her voice to layer a hum-line over the top.
I get the feeling that Miss Obel would be playing and singing these songs alone in her home regardless of who happened to be blessed enough to overhear her. The songs on this album – particularly the instrumentals – sound like a conversation between Obel’s soul and the Creator. And yet, as intimate as they are, they have a quality that makes them strangely familiar: a good indicator of a musician who’s tapped into the transcendent, in my experience. Agnes’ frame of reference is deep, wide, and vulnerable: she has seen darkness and she has seen light, she has encountered death and she wonders what the fullness of life might actually look like. And whether or not Obel believes in God, she’s evidently aware of, and grateful for, the creative flame inside of her that leaps into beautiful shapes.