Agnes Obel is quite clear (pardon the pun) on the concept of her third studio album Citizen of Glass. The title says it all really. After reading an article on the German concept of the gläserner berger (which roughly translates to glass citizen – or so the internet tells me) during her last tour she was struck by the theory. Try as we might – we are all guilty of it. Of being a glass citizen. In this age of social media we share more and more about our lives. Things that would normally be kept private are placed in the public eye. Some are better than others at censoring what they share with the world – while others are more than happy to be transparent.
Citizen of Glass is Obel’s first concept album and while for the most part she stands true to her previous sound – there is quite a bit of experimentation on the record. “Familiar” was the first single released from Citizen of Glass and despite the name, this was not at all the Agnes Obel we are familiar with. The track is probably the one track that really stays with people – and for good reason. That experimentation that was mentioned? “Familiar” let everyone know that Obel was ready to try something different. When I first heard it I spent ages looking online – trying to find out just who it was that joined her for a duet. To my surprise, it was Obel herself. With her voice pitched way down – she essentially duets with a male (slightly robotic sounding) version of herself. And honestly, it still blows me away.
There are some new instruments at play here too – most notably a German synthesiser from the 1920’s. It’s called a Trautonium and before Citizen of Glass I had never heard of it before – let alone knew what it sounded like. In an interview with The West Australian Obel is quoted as saying that it “can sound like glass” – hence her desire to use it on this record. It is in this interview that I learn that the instrument is probably best heard on the track “It’s Happening Again”. Here Obel states the Trautonium can be heard “in the strings with the big swells and also playing alone between the voices.” I am not going to pretend I was able to pick this instrument out on my own. I also had to find videos of people playing the Trautonium and then listen to “It’s Happening Again” in order to know what I was looking for. And while you may not be able to pick the sound out as the Trautonium – you still hear something and it certainly adds to the atmosphere of the record.
Writing the album as a concept is of itself an experiment for Obel. Having never written following a central theme before – through the lyrics, the use of a wide range of instruments (both old and new) and the placement of tracks – Obel creates a landscape of transparency. Obel deals with the notion of facing deeply personal and private issues while living in a world of glass. Not everything has to be shared. Not everything should be shared. Alone time is a necessity of life – but sometimes it can often be hard in the world we currently we live in. It isn’t just the way we make ourselves transparent though. We invite ourselves almost completely without apprehension into other people’s lives whether they know it or not. How many times have you been to lunch, or waiting at train station, saw someone and made up an entire back story to who they are? Maybe you met someone for the first time – how many times have you then jumped on Facebook and tried to find them?
Obel’s last album Aventine used subtlety and intimacy to create one of the biggest and most emotionally charged releases of 2013. Citizen of Glass follows in this vein, which adds to the glass feel of the record. It is strong. It is fragile. It is gentle. It is harsh. The album may sound like glass, but it is far from transparent. Citizen of Glass has a depth to it from which much can be read. There is always something new to find with every listen. The concept is strong – Obel created the perfect landscape of a glass citizen. But the album is deep. Meaningful. And once again Obel has created one of the biggest and most emotionally charged releases of the year.