Agnes Obel’s debut album Philharmonics went on to sell over 400,000 copies in Europe, gain critical acclaim and win her awards in her Danish homeland. It was a great album, and this is our way of saying there’s pressure to follow that up. So here we are in the autumn of 2013 with the Aventine LP. Does she succeed in matching her earlier quality? Well, there’s no large changing of her sonic palette, so she’s not going to shock and turn away established fans.
We begin with Chord Left, an instrumental which is simply piano that’s cold in tone but warms you thanks to its action and intensity. In another life, or hopefully next December, this will be the theme song to a BBC 1 ghost story. Fuel the Fire comes next, and here the instrumentation widens, piano backed by wonderfully distinct strings, the sound of crisp autumn mornings. Agnes’ vocal kicks in too, clear, crisp, the fog of your breath, and it’s a little like Lana Del Rey singing a murder mystery soundtrack set in Downton Abbey. The five minutes never drag. By track three the pattern is set: songs led by an insistent piano with organic support, and Agnes the winter ghost singing in your ear, but there is enough variation to keep you rapt, enough peaks and troughs, such as the plucked strings on Aventine (the song) which banish the piano completely, adding a few hints of a thaw, or perhaps a robin outside.
While the elements of the last album are present, this feels more filmic, more widescreen, in HD. We’re reminded at times of great albums like PJ Harvey’s White Chalk, where she took a turn to the chilling and gothic, and the queen of the alt piano, Tori Amos, particularly Under the Pink. At times Agnes seems to be invoking the gods and spirits of winter, as well as falling leaves and then snow while you watch from inside near a fire. There remains the question of whether we’d have fallen so much for Aventine if it had been released at the height of summer, and we really won’t know until next year. What we do know is that Agnes Obel has timed the release to perfection, providing a soundtrack to the close of 2013 which, while it might not attract many people who didn’t like Philharmonics, rewards her fans by building on her sound and taking it to perfection.
8.5 / 10