Agnes Obel – Trojan Horses (2016)
One of indignities of the modern age is the way almost every artist is expected to sell themselves, taking interviews and advertising on social media, explaining the clockwork that makes their art go. Danish singer Agnes Obel has resisted these expectations more than most. “I don’t think I’m on Twitter,” she told Filler magazine last year. In fact, Obel was surprised to learn that @agnesobel is going strong. (The account’s probably maintained by her management.) But the serious, soft-spoken musician says she prefers to let her songs speak for themselves.
Approached from this vantage-point, I suspect Trojan Horses is a song about itself. Call it heavy meta: the idea that songs themselves are Trojan Horses, bearers of hidden cargo. Like the work of Kate Bush or Nick Cave, Obel’s pop music delivers secret messages in plain view. “Silent reader of my mind, do you know what I will ask of you?” she asks. Even when Obel seems nakedly expressive, singing from the heart, her lyrics remain awfully cryptic. It’s an ambiguity reinforced by her ornate arrangements of synths, strings and piano: Loreena McKennitt and Scott Walker conjured by the same wintry sound.
John K Samson – Select All Delete (2016)
Unlike Obel, nobody is tweeting for John K. Samson. The former Weakerthans frontman quit Twitter in 2012; visitors to his page are invited instead to send letters to a P.O. box in Winnipeg. Every time I see this, I think, “I need to mail him something.” But I haven’t. Samson is one of my favourite artists in the world; we are acquaintances; we do not often speak. Instead of reaching out to him, I hit refresh or open a new tab and life spills on.
Samson didn’t leave Twitter because he is shy about his artistic process. I suspect he quit because it was making him sad. Select All Delete never uses the words “online,” “Internet” or “screens”; he never tries to rhyme “iPad” with “saudade.” However, it was written in the days after Samson read Michael Harris’s book The End of Absence, which considers the way our lives have been diminished by the devices we keep nearby. “The good old days were mostly bad,” Samson admits, “but I recall how dark the night got then / how absences could make me glad.” He remembers sleeping better and feeling less jealous, less strange. He remembers a world less indiscreet. “Select All / Delete,” Samson sings, and you imagine a writer pushing away from the computer. Or else maybe, hopefully, a little more than that: a writer pushing away from the computer, reaching for a piece of paper, an envelope, a pen.
Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.