I have no doubt that Agnes Obel’s home studio in Berlin is located in a stylish part of town, within walking distance of great cafes and art galleries but having been intoxicated by the magical beauty of this album my imagination really believes that Obel’s studio is like Brigadoon and can only be accessed on rare occasions, emerging at dawn from the mists of a secret forest.
Myopia is the fourth album release from Danish born Obel and builds on the violins, cellos and non-traditional keyboards of Citizen of Glass released in 2016. Strings are still entwined through this album but we are also treated to a kaleidoscope of treated vocals which are pitched up and down and swirl in and out of the songs. The myopia is, in part, a reference to the act of isolation that takes place in the recording process; an insular near-sightedness where the album becomes all-consuming and Obel says “…I need to create my own myopia to make music.”
From the repeated piano phrase and obfuscated main vocals (woven with pitched voices and a bubbling celesta), opening track ‘Camera’s Rolling’ opens the door to another world. This is an album that contains so much splendour but also seems haunted by the monster under the bed. Songs like ‘Broken Sleep’ seem pure at first but dark voices lurk and lyrics hint: “Dream me a dream soft as a pillow. Deep in the night till the morning will follow. Sea of trees, calling humans to hang like leaves from the willow”. ‘Island of Doom’ alludes to dealing with the grief of losing a loved one and uses instruments and voices to create a contemplative core. It’s followed by the early-in-the-morning feel of ‘Roscian’ (adjective: of, relating to, or involving acting), one of three instrumentals that act like reflective pauses throughout the album. The title track ‘Myopia’ pits exigent pizzicato against a slow ethereal arrangement that put me in mind of Michael Nyman and it gives way to the second instrumental ‘Drosera’ (carnivorous plants) which is disquieting and unresolved. ‘Can’t Be’ and ‘Promise Keeper’ both employ repetitive motifs of voice, strings or piano as their foundation and this sense of movement and time-keeping is only punctuated by the melancholy strings of ‘Parliament of Owls’ which sits between them. The final track is the beautifully understated; waking-from-a-dream feel of ‘Won’t You Call Me’ and its slow fade out acts as the decompression between the warmth of sleep and realisation you are awake.
This is an album to luxuriate in and give yourself over to. Its running time of 39 minutes is in reality a time-stopping, hermetically sealed lifetime and in the musical periodic table Agnes Obel a rare element. She is someone who doesn’t just work with song structure but also creates the world those songs inhabit; a creator of exquisite musical terrariums and very few artists can produce work that does this (Kate Bush’s ‘Under the Ivy’ or ‘The Ninth Wave’ or Marika Hackman’s pastoral debut album We Sleep At Last). The world created by Agnes Obel has that same magical realism that writer Angela Carter tapped into: beautifully unsettling. Feet in the forest, head in the stars.
Review by Paul F Cook