Album Review: Agnes - Magic Still Exists

Album Review: Agnes - Magic Still Exists | Random J Pop

When Agnes said ‘Fuck it’ back in 2013, and backed into the hedges out of music and the public eye; peace of self and peace of mind is what she sought, even though she may not have known that’s what she was looking for at that point in time. But somewhere along the way Agnes became spiritual. Not in the sense that she found Jebus. But she began to have a deeper awareness of herself and what she wanted out of life beyond just being a pop star. She chose to follow her heart and what her spirit called for, and not what others or an industry demanded of her. What was once her joy and her hobby became a job and a set of obligations. So Agnes stepped away from music to truly figure out if music is part of what her heart and spirit belonged to. And it turns out the answer is ‘Yes’. Because, *gestures*.

Y’all artists gon’ learn. Hikaru Utada went through the same damn thing.

It’s a mindfuck at how things can align. 2020 was awful, and 2021 continues to be. But it’s forced many into different forms of creative fulfilment, when it would be so easy to just remain still. Agnes could have continued to sit on her living room floor with a singing bowl and a piece of selenite, but she chose to release music and pave a road towards an album - her first in almost a decade. An album on which Agnes imparts the lessons she’s learned over the past few years, what she sees as an ideal world view, and thanks the love that continued to sustain her and keep her believing; all via a musical backdrop which feels like you’re floating through space. If space were a disco. And it just so happens that Agnes’ messages of love, appreciation and freeing of minds and bodies was what many of us needed in the cesspit that has become life for many of us. It’s an important thing to note, because this didn’t have to be the album. Agnes’ messages could have been any matrix of things, but it was about love and freedom during a time when it was easy to question if such things even existed. This could have been a very different album which focused on where Agnes was and not where Agnes is now. If only Agnes' proclamations weren’t so transient. Because gurl. This album is short as hell. And to even call it an album!?

Album Review: Agnes - Magic Still Exists | Random J Pop

But before I get into where the other 20 minutes of music could be, lemme praise the half an hour of music that we get here. 

The production on this album is stellar. Every song is produced by Vincent Pontare (Agnes’ husband) and Salem Al Fakir, known as Vargas & Lagola who have been solely responsible for producing Agnes’ music since 2019.

It’s easy to file the sound of Magic Still Exists album under disco. But a more catch-all term to file it under is probably just dance music. ‘Dance’ music is a pretty lazy genre to file things under, just like ‘pop’ is. But I feel that too often we just file albums under disco because they have a couple of disco songs, despite the albums legitimately being dance albums, i.e Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure?; which I myself have probably referred to as a disco album. Disco is definitely a driving force on this album though, something which Agnes herself has admitted. But Magic Still Exists sonically captures a very specific moment and place in time; and that is late 70s / early 80s ABBA, which is abundantly evident in songs such as the phenomenal “Fingers Crossed” and the stunning album title closer “Magic Still Exists”. But something which ABBA aren’t always remembered for is their occasional forays into funk and electro, which is also honoured here.

With Agnes, Vargas & Lagola all being Swedes, the ABBA influence makes sense. But Magic Still Exists isn’t just ‘Agnes doing disco’ or ‘Agnes doing ABBA’. It’s Agnes doing Agnes the best that Agnes has ever done Agnes. There’s a full sense of her having truly found herself on this album, which is why it’s so disappointing that the damn thing is so short. But we’ll get to that.

But as tight as the production on every song is, some of the arrangements and structures leave me a little conflicted. A general feeling I have with most of the songs on this album is ‘This sounds great, but it’s missing something’. “Here Comes the Night” sounds like it’s missing a middle 8, as does “Selfmade” and “Love and Appreciation”. The lack of a middle 8 or a bridge on “Selfmade” and “Love and Appreciation” is so strange. “Love and Appreciation” has a cute little moment where the music cuts out and it sounds like we're about to go into “Car Wash”, but then the song kinda just meanders for a whole minute. And then “Selfmade” just repeats sections we've heard already for a good minute and then goes into this overlong outro. It’s like Vargas & Lagola knew the songs needed more, but Agnes had already said ‘I wrote what I wrote. The vocals I recorded are what I recorded, and that’s that’ and they had to just work around that.

Then there are songs which feature production nuances that I just cannot settle on. “XX” features an amazing set of builds, but then subverts expectations and doesn’t give you the drop the whole song feels like its been leading up to. One on hand I like that the song doesn’t give a typical drop. But on the other hand, I do feel that the song would have benefited greatly if there was some form of SOMETHING, as opposed to the song just building and then ending. “XX” does such a superb job of setting the euphoria, but it doesn’t sit in it long enough for it to ever really pay itself off. I feel similarly about “Magic Still Exists”. I absolutely love that it’s nothing but Agnes and a piano, and that there’s so much drama, yet tenderness in the song. It reminds me a lot of Angela Aki’s cover of “Tsugaru Kaikyō Fuyugeshiki”. But I do wonder if the song would have given that bit more if it featured maybe some strings or a choir, given that it’s five and a half minutes long compared to Angela’s “Tsugaru Kaikyō Fuyugeshiki” which is comparatively brief at only three and a half minutes. I like that Agnes, Vargas & Lagola stripped the song so far back, but five and a half minutes is too long for a song that’s just a piano and Agnes with a one track vocal. And the the most annoying thing, is that “Magic Still Exists” features the one thing none of the other songs on this album feature, but several of them needed: a gorgeous middle 8 AND a bridge section. The fuck!?

Whilst Agnes is open about the discoveries that she’d made, part of that discovery is also her really locking down a sound that she owns and commands. Agnes’ music prior to Magic Still Exists was never bad. I’d definitely recommend that those new to Agnes via Magic Still Exists jump back in her discography. There are certainly some gems to be found. But Agnes was a very ‘any chick’ type of pop star. She looked a little like Leona Lewis, and had a good voice, but there was little sense of who Agnes really was until her album Veritas. Magic Still Exists feels like the first album of Agnes’ where she comes through in earnest. There’s a fire to her which you can hear in her voice. Agnes sings every song with purpose. Even if you are a long term Agnes fan, you’ll probably admit that Agnes feels, looks and sounds different now. This is more than just a case of Agnes feeling like she’s arrived. It’s more like she was reborn. And this rebirth after so long is what makes it so disappointing that Magic Still Exists is as short an album as it is.

Agnes. Sweetie. This is not an album. This is an EP.

Album Review: Agnes - Magic Still Exists | Random J Pop

Magic Still Exists definitely takes you on a journey, from it’s vocaless intro (which sounds eerily reminiscent to the opening of Final Fantasy VII) to its stunning closer. But between some of the songs feeling like they’re missing a verse, the lack of songs and “Love and Appreciation” sounding like a cousin of “Fingers Crossed”, Magic Still Exists doesn’t just sound short, it feels a little incomplete.

I don’t care if this shit is 11 tracks. Magic Still Exists is 35 minutes of music in total, including the interludes. But this is neither here nor there. The fact of the matter is that Magic Still Exists feels like it’s missing something to really feel whole, either as an EP or as an LP. The interludes do nothing to really tie anything together. The themes of the songs and the message Agnes conveys is so clear that we didn’t need interludes to essentially explain the next song. And in some cases the interludes just interrupt what otherwise would have been a perfect segue. Like...babes. We didn’t need an interlude between “24 Hours” and “Here Comes the Night”, because sequencing these two songs back to back makes sense sonically and thematically. And yet, Agnes wants to throw in an interlude talking about freedom, before a song which is about...freedom to love.

All of the interludes just feel unnecessary and undercut the songs they precede. “XX” has such an amazingly ethereal and engaging intro that acts an ideal album intro. And yet we get an intro put in front of it. The song “Selfmade” is such a great critique on living in a time where being self-made is now commodified and seen as a standard. But it can also be seen as a story of somebody literally making themselves into their truest self, and a commentary on gender identity. But with the song being preceded by the interlude “The Soul Has No Gender” it knocks down the various ways in which the song can be interpreted, because the interlude is essentially saying ‘The next song is about THIS thing’. Then there’s “Free Your Mind and Free Your Body” which replays a motif heard in “XX”. A motif which is then replayed AGAIN in the song which follows, “Magic Still Exists”. Which begs the question; why did we need this interlude in the first place, if the next song was going to open with the exact same thing we JUST heard in the interlude? It’s redundant. It seems like “Free Your Mind and Free Your Body” was placed where it was because the sequencing of “Fingers Crossed” into “Magic Still Exists” otherwise would have felt strange - which it absolutely would have. But an interlude wasn’t really the solution for this. A better solution would have been a song that can sit between them. Or to just resequence the album, because I don’t think the sequencing itself of Magic Still Exists is that great, which also highlights that it needed more songs to better tie them together. Or, if we were going to get interludes, then make them short songs fit for their purpose, and so good that they’re unskippable. Just as Rina had done on her debut EP with “Time Out” and “Through the Wire”.

It’s also bizarre that Agnes, Vargas & Lagola felt the solution to connect the songs was interludes and not just reworking some of the songs in small ways, particularly the singles. The music video versions of “24 Hours” and “Fingers Crossed” both have great mood setting intros which would have worked so well on this album. Giving the singles tweaks and making album edits would have helped them sit in the album a little bit better, and also given fans something a little new from what they’d already heard. Especially with the new material being so light.

Album Review: Agnes - Magic Still Exists | Random J Pop

After almost a decade with no full length album from Agnes, fans may be pissed at the lack of material on this album, and I wouldn’t blame them. Agnes served up songs so good as singles, that expectations for Magic Still Exists didn’t just sky rocket amongst her OG fanbase, but all of the new fans she garnered along the way, which included the likes of me. Here was this woman, who seemingly came out of nowhere with these amazing pop songs that was making other pop hoes’ efforts in 2020 and 2021 (two great years for pop music) seem unworthy. Then we get news of an album to take us all to the promised land bald-headed, just for us to end up half-way off the ground with half a head of hair, because a bitch gave us an EP and told us it was an album. I really am tired of this ‘Albums and projects turning out to just be EP's’ trend that’s become far too common over the past couple of years. But that’s a whole other rant. Agnes’ 2019 EP Nothing Can Compare was also a similar affair. Seven tracks and only three of them are actual songs. Four if you count “Not Dangerous”, which pretty much has no vocals. Agnes needs to stop playing games and give us completeness.

Magic Still Exists also feels cut short because it feels like two albums concepts which aren’t fully realised, sitting under an umbrella which only really works for a couple of the songs. The songs on Magic Still Exists are split between love songs and songs of self affirmation. Both of which are forms of love. But the album title appears to be in reference to the love songs. Maybe it’s just me, but I just felt that whilst sonically this album absolutely feels consistent and considered, some elements felt a little fractured. The theme of the album is definitely love. But then it feels like the third eye, spiritual elements are also a thing. I don't even know what I'm trying to say. But there is a sense that some elements of Magic Still Exists feel super considered, whilst others aren't. I also get the feeling that maybe Agnes was juggling around lots of different ideas of what to call the album, and that maybe the interlude titles at points were album titles, as “Free Your Mind and Free Your Body” and “Spiritual Awakening” could have worked, but Agnes settled on Magic Still Exists because it’s punchier. And she’s right. It’s a great album title. But I don’t think it really sells the concept of the album itself. But this is just me overthinking, and it’s a minor thing compared to the lack of songs. No. I am not letting this go.

You may have read through this review and asked yourself ‘Does he even like this album!? I can’t tell’. In short, Magic Still Exists is absolutely an album worth checking out. Every song is killer, but the interludes are filler, and this album needed at least 3 more full songs. The production of Vargas & Lagola shines from start to finish, as does Agnes’ vocals and her songwriting. But as much as Agnes shines vocally, she's not giving what I know she can give. Agnes goes OFF on "XX", but she never reaches those heights again throughout the album. Ma'am. I wanted more of this.

Magic Still Exists needed more of the greatness that we’re given here. In an age of streaming, where re-releases are becoming far more common, I’d really like it if Agnes re-released this album in 2022, to realise it as the album of the year contender it could easily be.

Verdict: It was Agnes all along

■ XX 🏆
24 Hours 🔥
Here Comes the Night 🔥
■ Love and Appreciation
■ Fingers Crossed 🔥
■ Magic Still Exists 🔥