“All media exist to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values.” – Marshall McLuhan, Canadian philosopher
Agnes Obel is a rare breed in today’s music. The Danish-born, Berlin-based artist is equal parts composer, singer, songwriter, and philosopher. She is not merely crafting songs for entertainment purposes, but they are thought-experiments meant to capture our imaginations and challenge our intelligence. Her third album, Citizen of Glass, represents the height of Obel’s brilliance, as she addresses the concept of the individual in today’s digital world. Privacy, health, and individuality are no longer the the sole ownership of the person but now controlled by a few and available to all.
Obel slowly and meticulously reveals these concepts through ten songs that are beautifully orchestrated. As the album progresses, Citizen of Glass has the feel of a classic film-noir soundtrack or possibly the sequel to Blade Runner. From her piano sonatas to the string-led ballads, Obel’s music is lush and haunting, mysterious and elegant. The album’s opening single, “Stretch Your Ears”, incorporates all these elements while introducing us to Obel’s main themes of individuality and insecurity. The strings are gripping, Obel’s piano playing is stirring, and her whispery vocals are captivating.
“Familiar” is pure genius, fusing Massive Attack-like trip-hop arrangements through the prism of a symphony. The song has a Marshall McLuhan feel in its message about the world and its citizens becoming too similar. Obel shows her literary ingenuity on “Trojan Horses”, taking a classic and applying it to contemporary times. Akin to Marshall McLuhan’s philosophical works, Obel warns us of the external influences on our individuality. Musically, the song is sensational with its rich layers and depths that combine to create a dream-like fantasy. The title track, meanwhile, moves Obel to the center of the song. Stripped down and minimalist in its approach, “Citizen of Glass” feels romantic yet it is more of an ode or even an obituary to our humanity.
“Golden Green” further showcases Obel’s ethereal vocals paired with stripped-down instrumentation. This minimalist approach puts greater emphasis on the vivid imagery of her lyrics,
“Who are you to take over my mind
With your eyes on me
All for you I am climbing the sky of golden green.
The album’s finale, “Mary”, is equally tantalizing in its approach, but even more crippling in its lyrical prowess. The song feels like a eulogy, as Obel’s delicate vocals bids farewell to someone she has known. “Be the witness of my change”, she whispers before her piano whisks us away into the twilight. It is the perfect ending to an album that is engaging, thoughtful, and mesmerizing. An album that sees Agnes Obel push herself away from her dramatic soundscapes to being music’s philosophical equivalent of Marshall McLuhan and Noam Choamsky.
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