The ‘classical’ tag appears in these posts from time to time. Sometimes it refers to music from the years 1600 – 1900 but more often it indicates modern music in a style that owes a substantial debt to that period. Familiar is one of those more recent compositions. It is a single taken from Agnes Obel’s forthcoming album Citizen of Glass which is due to be released on 21st October 2016.
Old Man Crotchety had never heard of Agnes Obel until a few days ago when Familiar was played on the BBC’s 6 Music radio station. In my ignorance I was able to listen without any preconceptions, entirely free of expectations that might have coloured my judgement. If I had known that Agnes Obel is a Danish singer/songwriter/pianist known in Denmark and a few neighbouring countries for her ambient piano pieces I might have hit the mental mute button. If you had told me that her first album was entirely composed of pieces for voice and piano inspired by the likes of Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Eric Satie I might have stopped for a coffee break. It wasn’t that I dislike those composers (I don’t) it was just that I wasn’t in the mood for something in a late classical style.
The track was introduced simply as “This is Agnes Obel and Familiar“; there was no clue to what might be coming. A gentle, slightly echoey piano introduction leads into some ethereal singing. Agnes’ voice is firm and natural. It doesn’t have the power of Shirley Bassey but neither does it suffer the debilitating weakness of the vocals in the average girl band. The overall effect was rather pleasant and the first line was intriguing.
Can you walk on the water …?
Unfortunately, too many of the words are indistinct to extract much meaning on a first listen. Looking up the lyrics on the Internet afterwards I found two or three different versions, none of them terribly enlightening and some definitely wrong. It’s hard to tell whether Agnes’ command of English is imperfect or whether her poetic language has just been lost on me.
While trying to make some sense of the words Crotchety Man’s ears missed the strings in the background until the prominent rasp of a cello takes up the theme and the subtle sigh of a violin adds delicate harmonies. The song has developed a lovely soft, velvety underbelly. Then, out of the blue, airy male voices swoop down and blend with earthy plucked strings for the chorus.
And our love is a ghost that the others can’t see.
It’s a danger.
I was reminded of Mogwai and of Gotye at his most inventive. This is ambient alternative music that demands to be listened to. Agnes Obel is not just another girl singer. She is also a talented composer and pianist, as her two previous albums (Philharmonics, Aventine) have demonstrated. Judging by Familiar she is now becoming an accomplished arranger, too. If she can just find some English words that can be understood without a supplementary explanation she will have the full complement of song-writing skills. Crotchety Man will watch her future output with considerable interest.