When Iceland’s Múm made its quiet arrival on the music scene in 2000 with the whimsical and exquisite electropop album Yesterday Was Dramatic — Today Is OK, they were pioneers. Back then, they were often compared to their Icelandic peers Sigur Rós, but that had as much or more to do with their shared citizenship than anything else. Both groups sound as if it they would prefer to remain children their entire lives, but their sonic palettes were wildly different. And although Sigur Rós has been hailed more widely for its innovation, Múm’s early music, at its best, was more revolutionary. Doubters need look no further than their finest song, “Ballad of the Broken String”, from their debut. The band borrowed from Richard James’ iconoclastic electronic impressionism and Björk’s spritely, universe-embracing sound, and applied it to the folk-pop idiom, and the result was staggeringly moving. “The Ballad of the Broken String” sounds like it might have been written and performed by androids from a science fiction novel — an existential tearjerker by “people” whose humanity is qualified by circuitry and code.
All of this is to say that Múm set the bar high in the beginning. And for a short time, it lived up to it, releasing the lovely, critically-acclaimed Finally We Are No One in 2002. But since then, Múm has gradually slipped, due in no small part to a series of lineup changes that has left the ensemble a shadow of its former self. Undoubtedly, its biggest loss has been twin sisters Gyoa and Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir, whose contributions as instrumentalists and vocalists helped lend Múm’s early albums a haunting, spectral quality that was central to their appeal. By 2007, when the only remaining original members were Gunnar Örn Tynes and Orvar Poreyjarson Smarason, Múm starting sounding like a different group. Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy, released that year, included lots of new musicians and vocalists, and though they performed admirably, the results undoubtedly left listeners longing for the Valtýsdóttir sisters, whose childlike personalities had come to define Múm.
Now two albums deep into their post-Valtýsdóttir existence, can Múm come escape the shadow of their past? Although it has a few winning moments, Sing Along to Songs You Don’t Know finds Múm trying too hard to replicate old successes.
The album title alone indicates Múm intends to continue in the willfully naive vein it has mined from the beginning. This is a fatal mistake, because it prepares the listener for something Múm can’t deliver. Although the opening track — with its prettily-plucked acoustics, sweetly-sung female vocals, cloyingly cute lyrics (“If I were a fish, and you were a seashell,” et cetera, et cetera) and generally anodyne sound — brings a measure of the dreamy charm the once came effortlessly to the band, it comes off as a lackluster imitation of who it used to be.
It should be said that Sing Along to Songs You Don’t Know is an almost unfailingly pretty recording. If there’s one thing this band in any incarnation can do, it’s create pleasant, and occasionally inventive, music. Just as it did on Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy, the band largely pushes electronic sounds aside in favor of more traditional instrumentation. There are lots of guitars and drums, complemented by as-pretty-as-you-please glockenspiel, dulcimer, marimba, brass, strings and more. But the cumulative effect is one of too many cooks with too many ideas that rarely come together gracefully. Album-opener “Sing Along” starts promisingly, with quietly chanted vocals entreating the listener to “Sing along to songs you don’t know / Because you never know”, but it quickly goes from enchanting to plodding, and overstays its welcome well before it ends after five and a half minutes.
Other tracks fare even worse. Reverting to its electronic roots on the unfortunately named “The Smell of Today Is Sweet Like Breast Milk in the Wind”, the band sounds like a too-cheerful, pre-programmed Casio keyboard, joined by a weepy string section and a small children’s choir. “Blow Your Nose”, another song with a sigh-inducing name, sails by on the strength of beautiful strings, but the ridiculous lyrics (“And if you must cry with grief / Blow your nose right on my sleeve”) nearly ruin it. The click, clacks, and other found sounds of earlier albums pop up here and there, but they seem to arrive more out of obligation than inspiration.
The unavoidable truth is, Múm is struggling to find itself. For a band that once incited cultish adoration, changing directions is a very risky, but necessary, move. It’s to the band’s credit that it has made stylistic changes — the shift to organic instrumentation, the shared vocals — but a complete aesthetic overhaul is in order. For the time being, Múm continues to stumble in the midst of growing pains — and unfortunately, “pain” is exactly the word to describe the experience of listening to Sing Along to Songs You Don’t Know in its entirety.