Nick Bollinger explores the Nordic noir of Berlin-based, Danish-born Agnes Obel.
The term Nordic noir has been used to wrap up the wealth of dark fiction, film, and television that’s been pouring out of Scandinavia, particularly over the past decade. But it’s a label that might equally be applied to some of the music.
Agnes (pronounced ow-ness) Obel is a singer, composer and keyboard player who grew up in Denmark, but for the last few years has been based in Berlin. Her music is icily beautiful, often evocative of Europe’s far north, and just a little bit dark and spooky. It’s not hard to imagine one or other of these tracks as the theme to some Nordic thriller.
Obel was trained in classical piano, but in what sounds like a typically liberal Scandinavian education, was advised to only play music she liked. That meant French impressionists like Ravel, Debussy and Satie, but also rock sngwriters like John Cale and Elliott Smith. By the time she began making her own records, six or seven years ago, such influences had been well absorbed into a style that is recognisably her own, and which keeps expanding – without losing any of its inherent noir-ishness – from album to album. For a good part of this new album, Obel is playing with new sounds, replacing what might originally have been a piano part with synthesiser, celeste or vibraphone. Obel uses her hocketing keyboard lines to create an impression of space and stillness.
When she sings, in that confiding yet slightly mysterious Nordic accent, what is she telling us? There is a clue in the album’s title, Citizen Of Glass. Adapted from the German glaserner burger, it was first coined in the 1920s for a set of transparent anatomical models displayed in a Dresden museum, but of course it is a name rich in metaphorical possibilities, especially in this age of data collection and privacy issues. Obel might be touching on such themes in a song like ‘Trojan Horses’, but the questions of what is hidden and what is revealed seem to apply on an emotional as much as an ethical level.
There is something glassy about Agnes Obel’s Citizen Of Glass: brittle, transparent, secretive yet offering no place to hide. At 41 minutes it’s not an unusually long record, though it can seem like one, perhaps because the tempos are so consistently downbeat that it can feel as though time itself has slowed. It’s beautiful and fascinating, but as in any Nordic noir it never allows you to entirely relax; there are dark things lurking just out of frame, over the next page or behind that shimmering chord.
Songs featured: Citizen of Glass, Red Virgin Soil, It’s Happening Again, Golden Green, Stretch Your Reyes, Familiar, Trojan Horses.
Citizen Of Glass is available on PIAS.