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Jónsi: Shiver

It must suck to be Jónsi. For more than 20 years, he’s been the face and voice of Sigur Rós, a band that has become synonymous with grandeur on a massive, cinematic scale. Their strict adherence to the aesthetic they’ve cultivated over the years is highly admirable, but it means that they’ve painted themselves into a creative corner, where even the most down-to-earth songs are still huge songs. The work that Jónsi has done under his own name feels like it’s born of a desire to make music with the same penchant for grandeur, but make it while sounding comparatively grounded, functioning more as songs than set pieces. It also served as a way for Jónsi to make music outside his comfort zone – his solo debut, Go, was largely in English.

It’s been a decade since Jónsi released Go, and it seems likely that the timing of Shiver is no accident – after all, the last few years haven’t been the smoothest for the singer. His band have come under fire for tax evasion (though the case was later dropped) and have ousted longtime drummer Orri Páll Dýrason following a sex abuse allegation. On top of that, he and his romantic and creative partner, Alex Somers (whom he collaborated with for the 2009 album Riceboy Sleeps), separated after 16 years last year. Add in the fact that Sigur Rós haven’t released an album since 2013’s Kveikur, and you can probably imagine Jónsi is feeling a little unmoored lately, and it stands to reason that there’s probably a lot of comfort in returning to music made under your own name in a time of great messiness.

“Messiness” is the name of the game for Shiver. Produced by PC Music kingpin A. G. Cook, the album scales back the grandeur of Go and pairs it with unprecedented amounts of glitchiness. Glitchy music isn’t a bad thing by any means, but the thing just doesn’t work, at least most of the time. And sometimes, it really works: “Kórall” is a charmingly disjointed song full of beats teeming with life, some skittering like insects, others crystalline and expertly polished, and the mechanical beats of the stunning opener “Exhale” are a fascinating throb that perfectly evokes the song’s opening request: “Breathe in/ Breathe out/ Learn to/ Let go/ Everyone’s alright.” But for every song like those, there’s ones like “Wildeye,” which employs harsh electronic beats that would sound perfect on a 100 gecs album, but just make you want to rip out your headphones here, and even the mid-section and final 30 seconds of “Kórall” can be overwhelming if you aren’t in the right headspace. And this is without even addressing the ugliness and abrasiveness of “Swill,” which would be one of the best songs here if it weren’t for how often Cook’s production dips into the realm of the unlistenable.

Shiver feels like the work of someone who doesn’t know who he is right now, and while he should be forgiven for that, it doesn’t make repeat listens to the record as a whole any more pleasant. Every wonderful moment is undercut by another, less composed, awfully rendered song, and ideas that should work fall completely flat. Jónsi’s ethereal voice is fantastic to hear, but his English-language singing drives home the fact that Icelandic (and the fictional language Vonlenska) are a perfect way to cover up the fact that he’s just not a great songwriter; “Cannibal” features the bruiser “You slice against the grain/ Gotta reduce the pain/ I smell, sleep and fever heat/ You know I’m a cannibal, cannibal/ Swallow everything at once,” while “Swill” treats us to the similar “Juice starts flowing, I salivate, woah/ I’m like a dog in heat/ A carnivore to meat.” He also managed to get Liz Fraser of Cocteau Twins and Swedish pop artisan Robyn for “Cannibal” and “Salt Licorice,” respectively, which are obvious guest star choices, but their presence still feels like a coup. While the former suffers the crime of being forgettable and half-baked (and Fraser’s contribution sound like a ripoff of the spoken word clips in M83’s Saturdays = Youth, “Salt Licorice” seems like a waste of Robyn’s time, the power of her voice (and the catchiness of her hooks) buried in the mix underneath unflattering synths and that got about 70% of the way towards sounding like a sturdy vessel for her, and then devolved into an ugly pile of noise. For anyone who has grown used to the ways that Jónsi as a bandleader was able to make even the chaotic moments of Sigur Rós albums feel controlled and intentionally designed, Shiver is going to feel like a maddening mess that needed another editor to help reign in the cacophony.

All in all, Shiver is a frustrating mess of an album, and despite the many glimpses of excellence within it, the whole package is either entirely forgettable or mind-numbingly obnoxious, drowning out anything of value. It may not have been the best time for Jónsi to return to music-making, as it doesn’t feel like he’s as sure of himself or his own artistic vision right now. This much personal turmoil can be a blessing for the creative processes of many artists, but considering the caliber of his work up until now, it feels like he’d do well to retreat, regroup, and figure out who he is right now before trying to make anything, if only to avoid making a mess like this again.

It doesn’t feel like Jónsi’s sure of himself or his own artistic vision right now.
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A Glitchy Mess

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