Jónsi: Go

Jónsi: Go




Rating 3.5/5.0

Label: XL Recordings

When Sigur Rós broke worldwide in 1999 with sophomore Ágætis Byrjun, the Icelandic quartet had the benefit of mystery on its side. With an unpronounceable album title that became the “Alien Baby” record in shorthand, a vocalist who sang falsetto in a made-up language and their arrival from a mysterious land of fjords and volcanoes, Sigur Rós appeared suddenly, immediately catching our collective ear with their moody soundscapes of piercing sorrow and haunting beauty. The band even liked to perform in near darkness, hardly addressing the crowd and utilizing a strobing light that kept us off-guard as frontman Jónsi Birgisson howled and strummed his guitar with a violin bow.

But with each subsequent release, the band chipped away at its mystique and by their fifth album, Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust, in 2008, the members of Sigur Rós brought down the veil, even starring in their own documentary and performing at mainstream festivals like Bonnaroo. While there was some musical progression with each album, the template set way back in 1999 seemed to be the band’s most successful, but without the mystery, the dread was replaced with a preciousness that felt somewhat calculated, yet still noble.

Although fans anticipated a sixth album in 2010, Birgisson announced in January that the band would be going on indefinite hiatus while its members had children and did side work. Birgisson, who got a head start last year when he released the instrumental Riceboy Sleeps with lover Alex Somers, returns with Go, a joyous album filled with shimmering pop tunes and warm melodies that eschew the darker depths Sigur Rós used to plumb.

Perhaps the biggest revelation on Go is that Birgisson sings most of the songs in English. While Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust ended in the breathy, barely audible “All Alright,” Birgisson fully embraces his second language on Go, creating a pastiche that can be both endearing and clumsy. While some may see this jump to English as the falling away of the final piece of the Sigur Rós mask, Birgisson’s lyrics are still abstract and vocally stretched enough that he may as well as be singing in Hopelandic during a good deal of the album.

The record begins with “Go Do,” a mélange of drums, woodwinds and a pulsing tempo that announces there will be no 10-minute dirges this time around. Throughout the song, Birgisson’s vocals flit and tease like the woodland sprite whose spirit he seems to want to conjure throughout the record. While the lyrics may be a bit naïve with its lesson in daybreaks and positivism, there is just so much going on in this song that it takes multiple listens to harness not only the joy, but its multiple layers.

While the propulsive next track “Animal Arithmetic” may be the weakest on the album- with lyrics about “making food disappear” and “making out-” Birgisson follows it with the breathtaking “Tornado.” Assisted by composer Nico Muhly, “Tornado” is a soaring and heartbreaking ballad that allows Birgisson the full use of his best weapon, his voice. As the song builds to its climax, it may sound the most like a Sigur Rós tune on the record, yet it overflows with an undeniable warmth missing from their glacial music.

The rest of Go alternates from full-chested, panoramic songs that wouldn’t feel out of place in a cartoon film (“Boy Lilikoi” and “Around Us”) and somber, yet not despairing tracks such as the one-two ending punch of “Grow Till Tall” and “Hengilás,” sending off the album not in the mad dash escapade of its opener, but the elegiac beauty Birgisson builds his fame around.

While Go may be different than a Sigur Rós release, it brings nothing new to the table except more beauty, more reason to frolic in the woods naked and a strong reminder that Jónsi Birgisson has one of the most amazing, distinctive voices in music.

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