Monday, May 10, 2010

reviewing jónsi part 1: the album

Confession time: I am a bad music appreciator. I consider my tastes eclectic and my mind open, and though I know there's a ton of great non-classical music floating out there, rarely do I take the initiative to pluck it out of the ether. Instead of seeking out awesome new rock stuff the way I seek out awesome new classical stuff, I end up hearing it in a bar, on TV, or through my roommate's door.

My immature classical pretensions make it so that I need some kind of "hook" to validate checking out what every normal person considers a great band. So I needed Alex Ross to tell me why I should listen, and subsequently fall in love with, Radiohead and Björk. My other "hook" as of late has been Nico Muhly, who with his delightful orchestrations gave me the gift of Grizzly Bear, Sam Amidon, Antony, Doveman, and now Jónsi. Somehow I missed the Sigur Rós bandwagon, even though people have been telling me for years they are the third member of the holy trinity of non-classical-stuff-that-classical-people-like (with Radiohead and Björk). So I'm glad I saw this blog post and clicked to listen to Boy Lilikoi: I was quickly enchanted, and eagerly awaited the release of Jónsi's/Muhly's album Go for four months.

I really like the process of gradually obtaining parts of Go. Initially on Jónsi's website I was able to listen to a couple songs and see a few videos, as well as hear acoustic versions of some tracks. In March I pre-ordered the limited edition album and could immediately download Go Do, an EP of three songs from the album. A week before its release, the full Go was available streaming on NPR's website; on the release date, I could download the whole thing, along with a video of Jónsi and Muhly performing four songs from the album acoustically (more on that later). Unfortunately the physical copy of the album and accompanying Go Quiet DVD didn't arrive until a few days ago. By that point the physical version was the least important thing--I had already experienced the album dozens of times. This is now the de-facto format for big music releases (you can still stream the full album for free): the actual CD is the least important component.

But let's talk about the music. The overarching theme of Go is kinetics: growing, moving, climbing, running, crawling. It is youthful exuberance wrapped up in forty minutes of music, as epitomized by the buoyant opening Go Do, a paean to childlike achievement. Over giddy electronic swirls and a thumping bass, Jónsi happily intones "You will survive, will never stop wonders/You and sunrise will never fall under." Nico Muhly's elegant arrangements weave in and out, with cute postminimalist wind and string grooves maintaining the beat. This style continues with the chaotic glee of Animal Arithmetic, which has a wonderfully out-of-place, half-a-second flute hoot before its opening chorus--a daring little solo for a rock album and something only Muhly could pull off.

The best of the fast and fun is Boy Lilikoi, an energetic and delightfully upbeat song made perfect by Muhly's arrangements. Dense interludes, packed with not only electronic beats, but also crazily virtuosic piccolo and flute licks, fill the gaps between Jónsi's ecstatic childhood fantasies ("You growl, you howl, you show your teeth/You bite, it's alright"). It's the musical equivalent of the first third of Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are, the naivete of animalistic joy before the onset of a darker reality.

Slower songs like Tornado still maintain that sense of movement--"You grow, like tornado"--combined with Jónsi's gorgeous falsetto, rising up into the stratosphere, accompanied by lightning percussion and sensitive piano playing. I love Sinking Friendships, the midpoint on the album, with its adorable little opening of Jónsi harmonizing his own voice and radiant middle section. And the pulsing verses of Kolnidur (one of two songs not in English) are a great vehicle for Muhly's delicate string tremelos; its chorus is haunting, as Jónsi's voice soars over his band.

In Around Us and Grow Till Tall, Jónsi creates a complementary pairing: the first in the fast-paced, energized style of much of the album, and the second more reflective, the only truly penchant song on the album. Both repeat the mantra "Grow till tall," made palpable by the music's constant expansion, but with different emotional resonances. Growth in Around Us is the miraculous, adolescent triumph over obstacles ("You break through them all/I see you crawl, now you stand tall"). It celebrates the journey to maturity as an end in itself; the destination of adulthood is far away, and Jónsi revels in the purity of youth. At the end of the song, the vocals become part of the wall of electronic sound, and the music shimmers spectrally--we are not too distant from the sound world of Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg. But Grow Till Tall is a darker counterpart, a more pessimistic view of growing up: "They all, in the end, will fall." Jónsi's voice, rather than merging with electronic swirls of color, is barraged and overwhelmed by static (more on this in part 2).

A gorgeous, slow string intro allows us to emerge unscatched from the apocalyptic electronics into the lullaby of Heliglas. Jónsi sings in a soothing whisper. The music gradually comes to a cadence, pauses briefly, and we hear the same beautiful strings from the opening, which cascade away into silence.

Coming up next: Reviewing Jónsi's live show at the Vic, as well as the supplemental Go Quiet DVD.

An acoustic version of Around Us

(Later edit: there's definitely some organ and brass going on in the intro/outro to Heliglas, my bad)


  1. how could you forget the eargasmic audible inhalations at the beginning of heliglas?!

  2. I'd just like to take this opportunity to note that when I bought OK Computer, my first Radiohead album, you asked me why I was listening to boring tween pop.

    Your brother

  3. May the record show I used to have bad taste.