This is part of an ongoing series called Rethink Thursday, in which I revisit albums that I remember either loving or hating, to see if time and experience have changed my opinion. Or heck, maybe the difference is just the day that I’m listening. As I listen I review the album, track by track plus overall commentary, and you get to share that via social media with everyone you’ve ever met.
This week’s review is very different.
See, last week I did the unthinkable: for Rethink Thursday I pushed play on the entire My World 2.0 album by Justin Bieber. And a friend of mine, whose music taste I respect deeply, gave me something of a backhanded compliment on Facebook.
“I applaud your stamina,” he said, “to stoop so low and listen, nay, re-listen, to this pornography with a perfectly open mind.”
Actually, I agree with him. And the truth is, for every Rethink Thursday I’ve selected music that really does rub me the wrong way. Aaaand I’ve sometimes picked music that’s purely mercenary and without any artistic merit. Also without any demonstration of talent. Because snark is easy and funny, and it’s easy to snark on stuff that sucks.
Not so today. In April of 2010 — five years ago, a month after Bieber’s album — Sigur Rós‘ frontman Jónsi released a solo album called Go. I saw press about the release on NPR Music and decided to check it out.
It quickly became my favorite album of that year. It turned into such a go-to (Go-to, get it?) that when my brother and drove through breathtaking Zion National Park that year to meet our sister, I insisted that we listen to this album and nothing else. He obliged, and we shared an experience we both remember as truly sublime.
When Jónsi announced a nearby concert later that same year, I made sure to get tickets. It was worth every penny. If you’d like to see really crappy footage of his amazing show, I took this video and this video.
So what made Go so special to me? What drew me in and kept me? I don’t want to spoil the surprises if you haven’t listened to it yet, but in Go I heard a pure artist experimenting with every analog sound he could find in order to create music that’s every bit as kinetic, and sometimes frenetic, as the electronic dance music that was becoming ever more ubiquitous at the time he was creating. There was a joy in this music that I had been hard pressed to find anywhere else. It was a joy that to me felt almost ecstatic, in the realest sense of the word.
I remember latching on to that. But it’s been a long time. I’m going to go into this listening fully looking for things to pick apart and dislike. But I also hope I feel that original joy again. Feel free to listen along:
What I think I’ll say when it’s over:
Maybe I won’t say anything. Maybe I’ll be in tears.
Track 1 – “Go Do”: I had forgotten two things about this, that I remember right off the bat. First, he didn’t just use analog sounds and play with them to make music that could resemble electronic music, he sampled a whole spectrum of musical sounds and cut them up with a modern EDM approach, and then built a whole fleshy animal around this cyborg. It makes for a technique that’s lush and endlessly engaging. Second, when the kick drum hits, it hits SO HARD. As the track progresses, though, I remember thinking that either Jónsi didn’t set out to make pop dance music, or he’s not very good at making it. There are too many breakdowns; the track meanders and goes too long for radio or club play. This is an analog-electronic dance-inspired composition… something.
2 – “Animal Arithmetic”: Ecstatic. I keep thinking about the word ecstatic. I keep thinking about how my brother reacted while we played these first couple tracks and looked out the windshield at Zion’s dramatic peaks, one after the other. “Wow,” we both said. And this isn’t just ecstasy. It’s an overjoyed romp through the joyful side of our modern-day absurdities. Jónsi’s found a way to look at the stresses and messes of daily life and find the sincere bliss in it all. Jeez, I didn’t think I’d draw any Jónsi-Sisyphus analogies today.
3 – “Tornado”: The contrast between the direct opening tracks and this rhythmically difficult, subdued piano part almost brings tears to my eyes. I feel totally lost, have no idea where the time signature is, until that kick drum comes in. Jónsi’s falsetto soars as always. The track plods along unnoticeably, albeit beautifully, until the instrumentation breaks down almost fully and we’re left we’re a straight-up soliloquy from Jónsi, in rare all-English. Then an instrumental re-entry, a climax, and a final breakdown. This ends up being a heart-wrenching confessional.
4 – “Boy Lilikoi”: Pretty, pretty, pretty. Dreamy, dreamy, dreamy. But never one I’ve loved. I see the late, low light of a spring day dancing through green leaves, and little else. Wait… wait I FORGOT we go kinetic again in this one! And that snare-ornamented breakdown-to-quick-build was breathtaking. Literally I forgot to breathe for a second. Did I mention that at the live Jónsi show all the drums and percussion were played manually, on real instruments? Think about that and listen to those percussion parts. Listen to that high hat. The drummer was spectacular — and, by show’s end — very sweaty. Holy crud this song just keeps toying with me. I keep thinking it’s gonna go one direction, and then it ebbs, then flows again. And the drums! You guys the drums! The high hat and the tom! “Your eyyyyes… your eyyyyes…” I think I just found a new favorite track on this album. I just never realized how wonderful this one is.
5 – “Sinking Friendships”: Oh gosh, speaking of breathtaking. WHO ELSE USES SILENCE AS AN INSTRUMENT LIKE JÓNSI DOES HERE? That’s one example of how EDM influenced this album, except I keep thinking he’s taking all those producers and showing them that their toys are his big-boy tools. I keep thinking I’m going to find a real let-down on this album. I keep waiting for it. And sure, there are moments when I would have changed the length of a section here or there, but other than that I can’t find anything. The arrangements are literally, literally flawless. And now that I’ve written that, we come to the end of the track and he proves me right again with the full-circle sung chords again.
6 – “Kolniður”: I’m listening to this track and still raving from the last one. Okay back to the present. “Kolniður” has a special place in my heart thanks to the animation that played as a backdrop to Jónsi’s live show, portraying hand-drawn wild animals of three kinds, at night: grazing deer, stalking wolves, and an owl observing the scene. I’m getting chills thinking about how the story unfolds. (Nope, wait, here come the tears. I feel like the girl from that eHarmony cat video. Sorry.) I’ll try to find a good video of the animation to post here — my own video, linked in the section above, doesn’t do it justice.
7 – “Around Us”: (How did the engineer get that piano to sound like ice?) I keep thinking this is the song called “Grow Till Tall” because he sings those very words in this one. But nope that’s next. The hits in this song (hit? drop? can orchestral EDM have a drop?) are the track’s strongest feature. At this point in the album, I’ve gotten a bit too used to the four-on-the-floor kick drum — I could use some sound sorbet to cleanse my palette — so overall sound on this track doesn’t feel special until we break into 7/4 time, then 6/4, near the end. But the arrangements are still nothing short of masterful. Still inspiring.
8 – “Grow Till Tall”: I wonder how Jónsi writes this kind of stuff. Is he sitting at a piano? With a guitar? without any clean attacks or rhythms it can feel like the melody meanders so much. Does he hear all these sounds as he sings it to himself in the shower? In any case, he apparently has at least two visions for this song. This one stays quite pretty throughout, very tonic and well within the boundaries my Western-theory ear expects. Live, the animation and lights worked together to create a powerful storm effect (lightening, leaves blowing by ever faster), and the music became much more chaotic. You can see video of that live version by following the second video link in the first half of this post.
9 – “Hengilás”: Another slower one to end the album, and I’m worried the energy won’t last. The electronic face has left us completely, and instead of kineticism Jónsi finishes with simplicity. The phonetics and melody of his exposed singing are beautiful, and I’m left wondering if this is Icelandic or Hopelandic, Jónsi’s own created language. I love hearing the breathing of the players in the background here. Just one more reminder that this is a living, organic album. Just one more testament to the whole thing’s sincerity. Oh, and there we go — when the lyrics end we’re left with just Jónsi’s voice as another instrument, flying high above the rest in the arrangement. The coda has imperfect intonation, and it ends on the V instead of the I, and yet I still feel like I’m home, right where I need to be.
What I’m saying now that it’s done:
I’m not in tears now, but for a moment during this listening I was. There are several words I had a hard time avoiding today: ecstasy, kinetic, organic. I remember feeling those words on my tongue every other time I’ve listened to this album, and today is no different.
But I’ll add one more today: gratitude. The hours of difficult work that went into this whole collection are so apparent, as is the care Jónsi put into every moment and every note. With some artists that hard work can, in the finished product, come across as pained. Painstaking, we say. But not here. Here, on Go, the sound doesn’t strike me as painstaking. It strikes me as fully, deeply pleasurable. For him to give that to me, it feels like a gift.
I’m going to put this album on repeat for the next month. I’m inspired every time I listen to it.
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