“I used to make mountains, but then they grew bigger than me.”
Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, co-lead singer of Iceland’s Of Monsters and Men, makes this self-reflective exhalation on “Waiting For The Snow,” the fourth track off the band’s new album, Fever Dream. The song repeats a pattern established with “Love Love Love” on their debut release, My Head Is an Animal, and continued with “Organs” on their 2015 follow-up, Beneath the Skin: A melodic, deliberate, mercilessly introspective song hinging on Hilmarsdóttir’s romantic entanglements, in which she lays herself bare to the listener’s ears. “Have I said too much / Did I love too hard,” she breathes, agonizing over her capacity to give and experience love without sending the house of cards fluttering to the ground.
Hilmarsdóttir has asked herself these questions for years, but “Waiting For The Snow” feels like an unintended statement on Fever Dream, too. Where Of Monsters and Men’s last two albums are characterized as folk rock with a side of pop, Fever Dream is characterized by pop alone; in the four years separating Beneath the Skin and Fever Dream, the band decided to tinker with their sound, not necessarily an act of reinvention but experimentation.
Why not? Experiments are fun!
But they’re only worth their while when the results make sense. Fever Dream doesn’t quite, but it also doesn’t not. More than anything, it’s a head-scratcher, a record that would be more easily evaluated coming from an entirely different artist.
Imagine a four-way intersection in downtown Reykjavik. Now imagine The Naked and Famous, Dirty Projectors (circa Dirty Projectors), Childish Gambino, and Katy Perry each running their respective stop signs and colliding head-on with one another. That’s Fever Dream. Put indelicately, the combination is weird; put much more diplomatically, it’s surprising.
Embracing new tones and styles works as often for the group as not. “Waiting For The Snow” is prototypical Of Monsters and Men given a simple electronic update, layering lo-fi slow-mo choral effects beneath the ache of Hilmarsdóttir’s vocals. “Ahay,” track number two, feels like cheap elevator music that’s occasionally uplifted by Hilmarsdóttir’s harmony with co-singer Ragnar Þórhallsson.
It’s the very definition of a mixed bag. Þórhallsson’s duet with Hilmarsdóttir on Of Monsters and Men’s breakout song, “Little Talks,” is arguably that song’s most important element, the standout detail that caught listeners’ attention and put the band on radars across the U.S. Fever Dream doesn’t drive a wedge between them: They unfailingly join voices on every song. It’s the best reminder that this is Of Monsters and Men, though Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson’s declarative drumming is a close second. Hilmarsson plays with enough force to summon icy wind storms and unleash them on the band’s audiences. Here, he’s held back by baffling use of hand claps and finger snap percussion on tracks from “Ahay” to “Wars” to “Stuck in Gravity.” You can’t stir a stiff wind with that, much less a gale.
Lyrically, the band remains firmly rooted in nature. “Oh, what a shame that I row / To the edge just so that I can fall,” Hilmarsdóttir laments on “Róróró,” conjuring the image of a mighty Icelandic waterfall to contrast with her more humbled image, paddling toward inevitable oblivion. Iceland generally plays a role in Of Monsters and Men’s music, even when their music isn’t directly about Iceland; the land itself tends to provide them with the foundation for their metaphors, whether in “Róróró,” “Waiting For The Snow,” or “Vulture, Vulture,” the latter of which sees Hilmarsdóttir ruminate on her visions of “pillars of sand” over Hilmarsson’s up-tempo drumming.
This too feels intrinsic to the group’s identity, but clangs against Fever Dream’s constitutionally clubby atmosphere. It’s not that the music is itself unpleasant to listen to; rather, it’s that the record so inconsistently marries Of Monsters and Men’s defining qualities with their new aural explorations. By consequence, the project reads too often as confusing and not cohesive. “Alligator,” the opening track, is a banger—such as any Of Monsters and Men song counts as a “banger”—where guitarist Brynjar Leifsson’s classic rock hooks roar over Hilmarsson’s thunder as Hilmarsdóttir’s urgent vocals push the song forward. But “Alligator” is nearly one of a kind on Fever Dream. If, from start to finish, the whole record worked half as well as “Alligator,” it’d be a bold new chapter in Of Monsters and Men’s narrative. Years from now, we’ll probably just look back on it as a peculiarity instead.
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.