By Jamie McNamara
One of the more underappreciated technological advancements in music production is the ability to change the pitch of the human voice. Not in the T-Pain, “All I Do is Win” usage of AutoTune, but in the ability to completely drop the octave of a human voice while still keeping it in tempo. The results can often be controversial: Frank Ocean on this year’s Blonde standout “Nikes” is a clear contender for positively received use, but then there’re the less-than-favourable initial reactions to hearing Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, or Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors – both seasoned “acoustic” musicians – adopting the digital baritone throughout the year.
Five-time Danish Music Award winner Agnes Obel, falls in the latter category. The classically-indebted, folk singer-songwriter uses the technique on “Familiar,” the first single off of Citizen of Glass, her intoxicating third full-length. The single features Obel dropping her gently-emotive falsetto into a lower register for the chorus; the resulting voice is exactly like the title of the song describes. It feels so recognizable – comforting in its warmth, yet off-putting in its unnatural pronunciation and eerie, lower-range falsetto. It’s an unnatural element that Obel juxtaposes with ornate string arrangements and an elegant piano accompaniment that wrap her uncanny valley voice in silk.
It’s the only time Obel obfuscates her operatic voice on Citizen of Glass, but it is one of the strongest singular moments on any album from the last year, a high-watermark that the rest of the album never quite achieves again, despite being wholly captivating, and coming close on “It’s Happening Again,” and the aching, album closer “Mary.”
With its classically-influenced instrumentation, Citizen of Glass is a stark, frost-bitten album that often sounds like it doesn’t belong in 2016, but then again, it often sounds like it doesn’t belong in any time period at all, and that’s just one of many great things about it.Agnes Obel, Citizen of Glass