The Danish singer-songwriter Agnes Obel’s debut album Philharmonics was released in October 2010 and certified double platinum by February 2011. The record contains eleven titles of Obel’s own creation, three of which are purely instrumental, and a more rhythmic or perhaps even more dramatic and temperamental cover of John Cale’s I Keep a Close Watch, shortened to just Close Watch on Obel’s record. The length of the songs, ranging from a minute and a half to a few seconds over four minutes, is nothing unusual.
After choosing this record for my review already weeks ago, I kept postponing and procrastinating, partly because other things kept coming up, but mostly because it seemed very hard to put my thoughts about it into words. So, having had the twelve tunes on repeat for several days (and they did NOT end up making me flinch every time the first track started again – and still don’t, actually, so that’s high praise from my part), I finally decided to take Obel’s own advice and go listen to them down by the riverside.
As seems to be the case with most of my music, I found Obel via Grey’s Anatomy. When I first heard Agnes Obel, the thing that came to mind was that she is kind of the rural to Regina Spektor’s urban. And indeed, her simple and charming melodies that are dominated by the piano – for example the lovely Just So
- make me think about summer and poppy fields and – for some reason – wild strawberries. Although, this connection might have something to do with this outrageously good weather we have here right now… In any case, this is the perfect record – at least for me – to listen to on a summer day too hot to do anything else than lie around and ponder upon life.
The record starts with the shortest tune, the instrumental Falling, Catching which, with its trilling and somehow also languid piano, sort of sets the mood for the entire collection as dreamy and nostalgic. This is quite smoothly carried on by Riverside, the first “proper” song on the album.
Having put this video here, I just have to say something about it. To put it simply, this is easily the most remarkable music video I have seen all year; my compliments to whoever came up with the idea of producing a clip that creates the air of times and summers long passed for this song. The song and video together seem to tell us of just a fragment of a story – but whatever that story is, I’ll leave for each of you to find out for yourselves.
The two following songs, Brother Sparrow and Just So, that tell of concrete, blue sky, sparrows, lemonade, the break of the day and half-awake moments really turn up the summeriness of the record. In Avenue – one of my favourite pieces on the record – Obel says in her mellow voice but, hey, we need to be somewhat foolish, feeble-minded, wrong and senseless again confirming my thought that this is a very summery album.
And if I was unsure of the fairytale-like air of the album before, then Beast definitely – with its lyrics talking of beans and beasts – made me more certain. Obel herself has said that she gets part of her inspiration from folklore and that can quite easily be heard when listening to the album; however, it is not the classic princess-and-prince-live-happily-ever-after fairytale Obel tells us, but a bit more complicated: Over the Hill speaks of longing, Close Watch of being careful and of the similarity of right and wrong, as does Avenue.
Although her melodies seem gentle and breezy, Louretta, for example, an instrumental piece – carries certain bitterness. The title track Philharmonics has the same feel to it; it has quite grim lyrics – like most original folk tales before Disney got to them – and the melody is mysterious and haunting, as if the piano passages told us something more than the lyrics. The last song, On Powdered Ground is somewhat melancholic, and if I had to pick the angriest tune from these twelve calm angel-voiced and piano-accompanied tunes, I would pick this one.
After sitting by the riverside and almost being devoured by mosquitoes, these are some of my thoughts on Agnes Obel’s first record. To those of you into the genre I call angel-voiced-ladies-with-pianos-and-or-guitars, Philharmonics is a worthy addition to your music collections. And considering that this is only her first record, I cannot even imagine what more is on the way.