Ólöf Arnalds comes from Iceland. According to some photographs, she has brown hair and one of those peaches-and-cream complexions that Victorian writers liked to praise, fair of skin, roses on the cheeks, although shots of her on the guitar show that face in a different mood, intense and crunched. The voice fits the face in repose — it’s a maiden’s Victorian soprano warble. All of the words you could apply to songbirds also apply here — she pipes, she trills, she lilts, she’s a nightingale, a robin, a blackbird, she’s everything tuneful that flies.
If Arnalds had less control over this voice then it might sound overly fragile or precious, or, more likely, it would crack on the high notes, but her control is fine, rather like the control of a throat singer, with a similar resemblance to the animal world, as if the musician is trying to shamanistically merge herself into winds and birds. This gives Við og Við a suggestive touch of the inhuman. The unsteady thread of that warble saves her voice from mechanical perfection, as if, responsive to the changing breezes, it might allow itself to be blown off-course — you listen, a little tense, wondering if she’ll make it to the end of the song, and of course she does, over and over again, ten times by the end of the album. The cover shows two white swans knotting their necks together in a modern mimicry of Norse Art interlacing, those long animals winding themselves in knots.
Am I making her sound too pretty? The sweetness in Arnalds is not ornamental, and there’s a new-folk unpredictability about it, not-tamed, not-dull. When she sounds rueful, as she does in “Náttsöngur” and a number of other tracks, there’s no self-pity. Arnalds will possibly be most familiar to English-speaking listeners from the time she’s spent with múm, although she has also toured with Sigur Rós and collaborated with various Icelandic musicians, the composer Skúli Sverrisson, and the laptop artist/guitar player who goes by the single name Mugison. Other Scandinavian acts have paved the road for her in large and small ways — Björk, of course, being the obvious one, and, at the other end of the publicity scale, the spectral quaver of Hanna Tuulikki, the lead singer of the British band Nalle. Arnalds’ “Orfeus og Evridís” starts with a very plain, pure hymnlike sound, which is the sound of some Scandinavian folk singing, particularly among women, so that you could point to other predecessors as well, traditional singers who have sold albums outside Scandinavia: the Finn Anna-Kaisa Liedes, for example, whose early ’90s album Kuuttaren Korut made a small splash when Riverboat re-released it in the UK with the title Oi Miksi.
Arnalds’s delivery in Við og Við has some of múm’s off-kilter breathiness, yet her music seems less childlike than that of her old bandmates, and the instrumental backing doesn’t have múm’s glitchy Arcadian blippiness. She prefers an acoustic accompaniment: a guitar, other strings, a mildly eccentric tuba. So there’s a nice boundary-straddling effect going on: not quite traditional, not quite not, everything compactly coalesced.