JFDR’s Museum is an Experimental, Synth-Folk Triumph

Icelandic composer Jófríður Ákadóttir’s latest album is generous, complex and alive with atmospheric textures and warm, reflective stories of love and loneliness

Music Reviews JFDR
JFDR’s Museum is an Experimental, Synth-Folk Triumph

Three months ago, I—admittedly—had no idea who or what JFDR was, and that was my first mistake. After spending countless hours consuming six years of work, it became clear that the solo project of Icelandic singer/songwriter Jófríður Ákadóttir is mystifying, and everyone should be ensconcing themselves in a blanket of her sublime, experimental electro-folk. Since 2017, she’s made a handful of LPs, an EP and two scores. It’s a catalog that’s ambitiously diverse and perpendicular to pragmatism, and her sophomore album—New Dreams—suggested that her approach to creative projects would never reside in the stratosphere of contemporary or traditional musical foundations.

In brilliant ways, Ákadóttir obliterates the metronome that the industry has provided her. If someone tells her to go right, she’ll go left. But, her most-masterful stroke of singularity arrives in her ability to shape-shift between worlds: At one moment, she is fiddling with Eno-esque ambience; the next, she is conjuring Bon Iver resplendents atop dainty, plucky acoustic guitars. Upon cracking open her beautiful new LP, Museum, I found myself immediately entranced by Ákadóttir’s seamless command of harmonious transgressions. She does not bend to the expectations of vocal arrangements, opting to instead forge her own curve. Lyrically, Ákadóttir pursues the avant-garde, tumbling through evocative imagery, snippets of fear and alienation and reliquaries of romances both new and old.

If you’re wondering what JFDR stands for, it’s a play on Ákadóttir’s name. But on Museum, the acronym becomes a whole animal, featuring the following outfit: Ákadóttir, Jeremy Malvin (synths, piano), Shahzad Ismaily (synths), Viktor Orri Árnason (violin, viola) and Joshua Wilkinson (synths, percussion). Though Ákadóttir writes all of the songs, what JFDR has become is now much more than just her. In a lot of ways, having such a strong supporting cast around to help her bring the ambrosial vision of her creativity to life is what makes Museum one of the acest efforts of 2023 so far.

As an opening number, “The Orchid” is a spectral, atmospheric beginning. A metronome melody twinkles in the background, Árnason’s strings pulsate and a teardrop synthesizer knots like a perfect bow-tie as Ákadóttir sews together threads of flowers, intimacy and desire. “Then when the sun rose / In a newer lighting / Lay his wings on her / Warm with his kisses / And touched her light feather / Just so they could breathe again / Just to be reborn again,” she sings. In a matter of seconds, Ákadóttir changes tune on “Life Man,” adorning an upbeat measure that builds into lush, choral harmonies. A light electric guitar flutters, turning the back-half of the song into a digital, euphoric orchestra.

The centerpiece of Museum is “Spectator,” which dazzled as a teaser single and now nestles nicely into Ákadóttir’s nine-song ecosystem. It’s a story of emotional voyeurism, where she wrestles with balancing her headspace with those of the people around her. It’s a thoughtful narrative that resonates, in which Ákadóttir, who fears she can’t be fully present for everyone she loves, takes the time to finally say: “This is too much.” Through her balmy vocals—and Ásgeir Kjartansson’s singular guitar strum—a plume of synths tumble in and out behind her. “I’m caught in between / Feeling the feelings / Of everyone except my own / I can’t take it / I can’t be in between / How can I help you if I always get it wrong,” Ákadóttir sings. “Spectator” is not a wall of sound, but a tributary of flickering textures and gentle sonic checkpoints.

Ákadóttir halves the album with “Flower Bridge,” a beautiful, instrumental gap filler that doesn’t feel like filler at all. Conjuring Keyboard Fantasies-era Beverly Glenn-Copeland, Ákadóttir’s synths mesh perfectly with Wilkinson’s langspil. Like the title suggests, it’s a bridge to someplace new, a paradise taking shape as “Valentine”—an ornate composition rife with blips of piano that crawl from the belly of swelling, wind-trodden pads and culls. The song is as twinkling and proper as it is avant-garde; a multifaceted balance of an unfolding ambition and ethereal falsettos.

If Side A of Museum was meant to unveil Ákadóttir’s softer side, then Side B is her attempt at expanding the margins of her own creative palette. “Sideways Moon” spits out faint pop beats; while “February” is the epitome of digital singer/songwriter bliss. The former contemplates the trauma of heartbreak (“I wonder why / It’s easier to forget / It all until we die”), while the latter illustrates the hope that a love taken for granted will soon return (“February birthdays / Are the rarest / Do we get to dance when / We can touch each other again? / I miss things I didn’t even know I had around”). This is an electronic record—there’s no doubt about it—but the heart of Museum resides in how the violins, violas, harps and cellos interact with the atmosphere of the ethereal ivories and a droning langspil.

Museum’s emotional journey culminates in “Underneath The Sun,” a lovely, earthy acoustic tune fastened together with 1970s soft-rock arpeggios. Ákadóttir’s hollowed vocals conjure as many wooded daydreams as they do ghostly reunions, as she considers the safety of her current relationship and how far love can carry them. “And so, darling I know, I am safe in your hands / If I fall, from you or towards, I have somewhere to land / I’ll be on your side, underneath the sun / Carved out in heaven, some of our love / I have tried to hide, I have failed to forget / I could be the culprit if I was right,” she sings. By Museum’s end, the fear, doubt and exhaustion have subsided, and—despite the experimental pairings of synthesizers, strings and guitars—there’s a choreographed synchronicity in Ákadóttir’s own metamorphosis.

Ákadóttir doesn’t overstay her welcome, and Museum performs like a meticulous, well-crafted ballet where JFDR’s crew of players are the ballerinas. Across nine songs, she deftly hypothesizes what emotional boundaries exist in and beyond her world. It’s an individualistic, tender sermon on healing that arrives as not just a collection of songs, but a full-bodied movement. And, though the themes are well-loved and widely approached in contemporary terms—Ákadóttir brings a refreshing sense of vulnerability to Museum. One of the most generous parts of the project comes through how she considers all of the possible outcomes in the act of infinite romance. Of course, the nirvana of love might prevail; but, it’s very likely that her forever is equally measured in something much more fixed. As she sings near the end of “Underneath The Sun”: “Lost is the answer in the fabric of the clouds / A promise in the distance, whether it saves you or faults.”

Matt Mitchell is Paste‘s assistant music editor. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, but you can find him online @yogurttowne.

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