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album review: jónsi, go

What is there to say about Jónsi? If you’re a fan, you’re die-hard. If you have no idea what the name means, you’re in for a history lesson. Instead of offering a typical track-by-track review with which I am becoming quickly too comfortable, I am going to give you faithful readers an (unbiased as I possibly can be) account of the man, myth, legend, creative force, innovator and general human specimen of interest named Jónsi Birgisson. Why? Because I love him, I love you and I know what’s best for you. You need to listen to (more of) his music. What he’s doing and what he’s done for music in general over the past ten years is truly unparalleled by any other productive artist today, except maybe Radiohead.  For the latter demographic I mentioned in the third sentence of this paragraph: you may be asking yourself, “How do I know nothing of this phenom, considering I am culturally aware enough to know lipmag, enjoy snarky articles and listen to indie music?”

Here’s the history lesson: Jónsi Birgisson is the lead singer of an Icelandic post-rock band called Sigur Rós. Icelandic post-rock? Yep, you got it. Björk is the band’s only direct contemporary. Post-rock isn’t really descriptive, so I’ll perhaps too confidently tell you that Sigur Rós’s sound is epic, sweeping, spatial, guided by Jónsi’s sweet, sweet falsetto and not in English. Most songs are in Icelandic, some are in a language the band made up, and actually their most recent release Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (With A Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly) features exactly one song in English. After going to the concert in the notoriously hot, matchstick venue in Tempe, Arizona called the Marquee Theatre two years ago, I can only describe the concert as a religious experience. Most people, whether seeing the band in a church in Harlem or at a festival in Sweden, concur. It’s commonly called the music God made when he was creating the Earth. This is achieved a number of ways, but perhaps the one most recognizable is that instead of playing the guitar traditionally, Jónsi plays it vertically with a cello bow. This creates a reverb that can be at times painful to listen to, but is a truly unique instrumental venture in the history of human art.

Their beginning albums, Von (1997), Von brigði (1998), Ágætis byrjun (1999), Rímur (2001) and ( ) (2002), really explore the formation of their musical styling. The older Sigur Rós got, the more positive their sound became. You can detect the development of their musical growth first through the addition of new instruments, then through an increased tempo (Takk… (2005) and Heima and DVD/CD pack Hvarf/Heim (2007)), then finally through harmonization and repeated chorus in a style Sufjan Stevens might approve of (2008’s Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust).

On Jónsi’s solo album Go, released worldwide on April 6, 2010, it’s clear that this increased positivity and connection to traditional pop music was all his doing. Beginning track “Go Do” brilliantly entices the listener by setting the tone for the majority of the album as multi-instrumental, upbeat, foot-thumping and falsetto-ruled. It’s also featured in this beautiful Let’s Colour ad. I generally forget that Go is almost entirely in English; perhaps it’s because I’m so used to listening to the man and his band in everything but English, but I think it’s more because the melodies and the compositions of the album as a whole demand attention to be paid elsewhere than lyrics.

The next track that really stands out to me is “Tornado” because it slows down the pace of the album and returns to the cinematic quality for which Sigur Rós is so famous. The penultimate song, “Grow Til Tall” feels like it should be the end because of its progression, climax and descent into nothing. Curiously, Jónsi’s choice of final track, Icelandic “Hengilás” is the album’s biggest throwback to Sigur Rós’s sound. Perhaps Jónsi is making the point that even though he has moved into the linguistic realm of English and a vastly more positive sound, he’s proud of the cinematic and orchestral niche he has created in music. The only global review I can give of Go is that it alternation between quiet and intimate songs that somehow simultaneously recall the minimalism and emotionalism of previous work and the stadium anthems that communicate pure excitement and love is what makes it awesome. Even Pitchfork has to agree.

One thought on “album review: jónsi, go

  1. Pingback: year in review: Top 5 Albums of 2010

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