Icelandic music is better. It just is. Maybe it is the mesmerising haze their vocalists are able to effortlessly produce. Maybe it is the overriding vision of glee that creeps in and infects even the most jaded and cynical of minds. Maybe they all take acid and this is the end result of some sick government experiment that has resulted in the creation of some beautiful and stunning musical vista's. The explanation is unimportant. The source seems to make all the difference.
I will not bore my 2 avid readers with a lesson in Icelandic popular music. However with artists such as Sigur Rós, múm and Björk flying the national flag, Of Monsters And Men find themself amongst the musical elite. Their first action is to sing the entire album in English. If this is a pearl of wisdom handed down by their label (Record Records), it is a vital one. It immediately differentiates the band from more illustrious local acts and lends itself to an infinitely wider audience. Is it a cop out? The album is such that if Nanna and Ragnar had sung in their native tongue I believe it would've culminated in a beautiful and denser sound. Singing in English allows no room to hide, it cannot be a weak and clumsy effort. Thankfully, this is neither.
The brilliant Dirty Paws starts us off, a simple acoustic guitar and a melodic duet greets a weary listener like a warm fire and a cup of hot chocolate on a cold and rainy evening. It's a shot of valium directly in to your ears, followed by a shot of caffeine. If you invest in a little energy exertion you'll even find a nice story unfolding for you, as Nanna and Ragnar describe for you a vivid scene of battle between rival animals in an Icelandic forest; 'The forest that once was green / Was colored black by those killing machines / But she and her furry friends / Took down the queen bee and her men.'. Exploding in to life towards the one minute mark, it's an epic opener that immediately takes you in to this world they have created, one of optimism and energy and lush soundscapes. King and Lionheart proceeds in a similar fashion, a humble acoustic beginning hiding a thick layer of guitar that rises and falls with Nanna's strong tones. 'And as the world comes to an end / I'll be here to hold your hand / cause you're my kind and I'm your lionheart', the pure strength of voice reinforcing and qualifying her lyrics.
My Head Is An Animal does not ebb and flow, it pulses forward, dragging you along with it but ensuring you never get pulled under the surface. The optimism, the youthful aggression and playfulness is so buoyant you won't lose sight of the sun. Even the aptly named Slow And Steady throws a lifeline around 3:40 as the sun creaks through the clouds. It begins with the darkest lyrics of the entire record, 'The lights go out, I'm all alone / All the trees outside are buried in the snow'. Nanna doesn't quite pull the loneliness off, you always feel there is a big packet of prozac around the corner to lift the spirits. Little Talks, the best track on the record, smacks you over the head with a big mallet of horns and happiness, a danceable anthem that has Nanna and Ragnar singing to each other before joing up in a delightful duet.
It's quite amazing the way in which these two voices complement each other. Nanna appears to have a wider vocal range, on Love Love Love for example we hear her emoting quite soulfully and very low down over a simple yet delicate backing of synth and percussion. Beginning her singing life as an acoustic solo act, her ability to mix strong high pitches with softly sung lower numbers has already been developed and honed. Adding Ragnar in to the pool brings another dimension of what feels like the same vocalist. On Little Talks you can be forgiven for missing Ragnar altogether, until you listen hard and realise that bass aspect you thought was Nanna is actually him. The blend is unnerving at times. On Your Bones the roles are reversed, with Ragnar the dominant one and seemingly the only vocalist until you catch a slightly higher note coming from the female corner. It makes for such an intriguing dynamic and creates these multi-faceted choruses that add even more to the thick layers of sound already being produced.
Energetic though they may be, Of Monsters And Men are unable to to exert their optimism over the whole record. There are just a couple too many songs. Sloom is another acoustic effort, it feels tired and forced. Lyrics like 'the cat's silhouette, as big as a monster, in this concrete jungle, with street lights hanging their heads' is a jumble of poor and sloppy imagery. Lakehouse builds to a similar climax as seen earlier on the record, and Yellow Light proves an almost carbon copy. It's unfortunate and detracts from a record that relies heavily on high energy and padded emotion to implant itself within the mind of the listener. I said at the start of the review that the brilliant opener Dirty Paws picks you up and drops you in the middle of this wonderous creation of a world that Of Monsters And Men have painstakingly crafted. By the end of Your Bones and the beginning of Sloom, you find yourself swimming over to the edge and clambering out. The world becomes fuzzy and slips away, the temptation results in a quick skip of the final few tracks so you can start the process all over again. Stop in for Numb Bears though, it's a nice closer with a jazzy tempo enforced by an overworked horn section that will prime you for your next listen.
7.5/10. Is this a record focused solely on aesthetics with no gumption or concrete content to back it up? Yes and no, more no. The fleeting nature of a music induced high such as this is hammered home when you arrive at track 10, it has you reaching for the xanax to smooth your landing. That doesn't mean your experience was purely superficial. Of Monsters And Men paint vivid pictures with their imagery of nature and infectious enthusiasm. Lyrically this album is not poor or shallow by any stretch, it's much deeper than the horns will have you believe. You have to be prepared to listen though. If you just skim read this release you'll leave with a warm glow and an improved mood. If you invest in it you may leave with a little more wisdom than you arrived with.
Best Tracks: Dirty Paws, King and Lionheart, Little Talks, Mountain Sound