Sigur Rós frontman’s solo debut proves he’s more than just a pretty voice.
There’s this thing Jónsi Birgisson does with his voice. You can hear it nearly three-and-a-half minutes into the track “Grow Till Tall” on Go, his first solo record after more than a decade fronting Icelandic ambient-rock outfit Sigur Rós. Jónsi’s fragile, luminescent tenor begins a subtle dance, climbing a few notes up the scale to a moderate plateau and then sliding back down, ascending once more to a comparable altitude, then gliding all the way back down to Earth like a well-built paper airplane. He patiently follows this trance-inducing pattern for a minute or more, creating the illusion of a low vocal ceiling. And then, just as Nico Muhly’s orchestral score begins to swell and fidget restively, Jónsi’s voice suddenly lifts off into the exosphere—effortlessly, like a column of steam rising. By the time his voice reaches its zenith, it’s morphed into a glistening, siren-song falsetto. It would take a philosopher or a theologian, not a music critic, to explain why this voice ties the human throat in knots.
Though unmistakably beautiful, the moody, operatic drama of “Grow Till Tall” and album closer “Hengilas”—a track so intimately arranged that you can distinctly hear the steady-droning horn players gasping periodically for breath—tell an incomplete story. Go could be an exercise in repackaging Sigur Rós’s darker instrumental output and slapping fresh cover art on the front, but—mercifully—it isn’t. What Jónsi claims began as “a low-key, acoustic record” quickly chewed the lock off its conceptual cage and began mutating as wildly as a Gremlins mogwai that’s been fed a bag of gummy worms after midnight.
Listening to the giddy, fluttering woodwinds that grace album opener “Go Do,” you’d be forgiven for thinking you were listening to the soundtrack of a Disney movie starring cheery, anthropomorphic woodland creatures. An insistent kick drum pounds out the time as Jónsi sings, “You always know that we can do anything.” The first time I heard the phrase belly-flop off his lips, I groaned inwardly: What is this gauzy, pseudo-inspirational twaddle? But the more I digested the record, the more I sensed Jónsi’s excitement about having a blank artistic canvas to work on. Outside of the reassuring confines of Sigur Rós, the phrase “we can do anything” is more about reveling in exploratory possibility than peddling a motivational greeting-card nugget.
In truth, it’s a little strange to be parsing Jónsi’s lyrics in the first place. The man has spent the majority of his career slouching behind inscrutable declarations, alternating between Icelandic and the impressionistic ‘Hopelandic’ syllables he scattered across Sigur Rós’ ( ) album. The snowblind packaging of that record even contained a booklet with mostly blank pages, on which you could presumably transcribe what you imagined was being sung. This approach invited listeners to hang their own idiosyncratic mental portraits on the band’s magnificent aural set pieces, and Jónsi’s refusal to sing in English became a key ingredient to the music’s unique flavor.
Jónsi sings about three quarters of Go in English and the rest in Icelandic, but his now-apparent shortcomings as a lyricist weaken the overall emotional impact of his compositions. On “Tornado,” he sings, “You grow from the inside / Destroy everything through / Destroy from the inside … You fall through the inside / You kill everything through.” The song’s metronomic opening piano chords and sullen tone feel like a more straightforward reworking of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song,” ironing out the constantly shifting, seasick meter that made Thom Yorke’s ballad so memorable and emotionally disconcerting—it might be a little better if we didn’t know what Jónsi was saying.
Jónsi chose a remarkable cast of collaborators to flesh out the songs on Go, and their varied influences leave indelible marks. Most notable is the contribution of acclaimed composer and Philip Glass protégé Nico Muhly, who’s worked with artists such as Björk, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Antony Hegarty. Muhly’s orchestral imagination is fertile and wonderfully elastic, stretching to fit Go’s kaleidoscopic moods and vocal textures. The album’s crown jewel, “Sinking Friendships,” strikes a sublime balancing act between instrumental dynamism and vocal nuance—classical percussion, woodwinds, syncopated piano lines and cascading, multi-tracked “oohs.” Jónsi has never approached his music with a traditional pop song structure in mind, and Muhly lets his arrangements duck and weave in similarly unpredictable directions.
Fans of Jon Brion’s more bombastic production work will appreciate Muhly’s sonic-toy-chest approach to “Animal Arithmetic.” The tune strains at the leash for its entire duration like a manic Chihuahua, clattering along at 120 mph with cymbals crashing, drummer Samuli Kosminen’s sticks ricocheting off of any surface in sight, and Jónsi spitting out sing-songy verses like jump-rope chants. It’s easy to appreciate the exuberance on display, but this will probably be the track on the record that sends most listeners scrambling for the skip button. Don’t be surprised if it spawns a seriously bumpin’ David Guetta club remix.
Jónsi shares Go’s production credit with collaborator/boyfriend Alex Somers (the pair released an ambient duo album called Riceboy Sleeps in July 2009) and Peter Katis (The National, Interpol), at whose Connecticut studio major sections of the album were recorded. The three of them deserve a Grammy for not only keeping track of the record’s dizzying volume of sonic layers, but for grooming everything to coexist with such confounding rightness. It’s easy to forgive the album’s occasional misfires because it doesn’t tiptoe about, eyes glued to the floor, apologizing for its gargantuan ambition. It does cartwheels when it bloody well feels like it, cries when it wants to, and raises the bar for songwriters like Sufjan Stevens who share similarly heady classical predilections.