Agnes Obel's Myopia: Echoes March CD of the Month
by John Diliberto 3/2/2020
Hear Agnes Obel’s Myopia Featured on Echoes Monday, March 2 and the Following Weekend.
I have been captivated by Agnes Obel since her 2010 debut album, Philharmonics. The first thing was her voice, at once sensual and ethereal, curving around lyrics like Billie Holiday in a dream. Then there are her songs. They have a classical aura to them while also being thoroughly modern. Stripped of her voice, they are gorgeous ambient chamber music works, but why would you want to do that when you’d be missing lyrics that explore the personal and interior of her life? That’s why her new album is called Myopia. Defined as a lack of intellectual insight, narrow mindedness or obtuseness, that’s usually not considered a flattering characteristic,. But for Agnes Obel, it’s her modus operandi, creating an interior music world that will envelop you like a shroud.
The Danish-born singer’s music is full of mystery, with secrets hidden in shadows, just beyond perception. She creates lush keyboard melodies falling somewhere between Chopin and Philip Glass in their earworm capacity and repetitions. Except for strings, she plays everything herself, from the marimba-like patterns of “Camera’s Rolling” to the synthesizer moods and creaky sounds of her Luthiel piano samples.
Strangely, and I admit, possibly insensibly, the opening lyrics of the title track take me back to Alice Cooper’s “Welcome to My Nightmare.”
Alice Cooper sings:
Welcome to my nightmare
I think you’re gonna like it
I think you’re gonna feel like you belong
A nocturnal vacation
You want to feel at home ’cause you belong
Have you ever
Gone into my myopia
Think of a subtle way
To let it go
Think of your sanity (drip drip)
The drip with a frenzy (drip drip)
To rewrite the elegy (drip drip)
That would trigger your fury.
I’m not sure which one is scarier. Like Cooper, Obel is talking about a tormented frame of mind. For her, myopia is a state of inner exploration, but also a trap. “Think of your sanity,” she sings. “Can’t let it go.” But musically, Obel occupies a different universe than the shock-rock icon, creating a subtle 21st century chamber music sound with repeated piano arpeggios, haunted synthesizers and on “Myopia”, unnerving snare drum hits.
That feel is echoed on “Broken Sleep,” where her lyric passages twist and turn, forking and running in parallels that obscure her lament of sleepless nights, but beautifully evoke the fevered state of the insomniac.
This perspective informs other tracks on Myopia like “Island of Doom,” a song about someone who has passed, but whose memories still exist in her synapses and continue to influence her thinking. It hovers on the borders of unreality, especially when she sings “When the lights fade out”, pitch-shifting her voice into high and low harmonized registers in a chorus of gentle disarray.
“Can’t Be” includes a bit of a nod to Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” with its breathy exhale used as the rhythmic basis. And like Anderson, this is a track where Obel manipulates her voice, altering the pitch and creating inner dialogues. Her conversations are so “inner” that you often can’t understand them. Obel bends her words, sliding and smearing them together. And that’s before she adds electronic processing. As poignant and insightful as her lyrics are, for Obel it’s more about the sound than the words. Obel not only creates melodic hooks, but effect hooks that grab your mind and won’t let go.
Although Obel uses the term myopia, it’s more like she’s doing the work of a Buddhist monk meditating. She’s mapping her mind, exploring its vagaries, deviations and insights. Agnes Obel’s Myopia is a dream of an album from one of the most inventive singer-songwriters of our time.
Read review of Agnes Obel’s January 2011 CD of the Month, Philharmonics.
Read review of Agnes Obel’s November 2016 CD of the Month, Citizen of Glass
Hear Agnes Obel talk about Myopia in Echoes Podcast.