The Sigur Rós frontman’s first solo foray (featuring explosive arrangements by Nico Muhly) is a triumphant success.
With their second album, Ágætis byrjun, Sigur Rós crystalized their sound, delivered a masterpiece and effectively usurped Björk’s throne as figurehead of the Icelandic music scene. The next two albums, ( ) and Takk..., found the band tweaking and perfecting what they had accomplished on Ágætis byrjun. There weren’t any great shifts in tone or style, but they were still delivering knock-out soundscapes that left the rest of world daydreaming of a life in Iceland. On Sigur Rós’s last album, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, the band took steps toward expanding their wheelhouse for the first time in their decade-long career. The album was an uneven affair, and its moments of radiant, bombastic pop felt like a transformation in flux.
Go is the album that Með suð was aspiring to be, or, I suppose, I just wish Með suð had been more like Go. I say this because Go commits to its ambitious sound from beginning to end. The first two songs released from the album, “Go Do” and “Boy Lilikoi”, build on those bombastic pop moments of með suð and equal them capably. The pounding drums and uplifting orchestral surges of “Boy Lilikoi” serve as a perfect transition from Með suð. “Go Do” repeats the formula to even greater effect with a strong dose of seize-the-day optimism. The song’s fanciful video doesn't hurt either.
In the middle of “Go Do”, Jónsi urges us to “Go drum, too proud / Make your hands ache, play it out”, which could double as a mission statement for Go. The album’s beating heart is, well, the beat. To be more precise: the record is dominated by booming, martial percussion. It’s hard to believe that Go initially began as a “low-key acoustic record”, considering how it turned out. In a press release, Jónsi explained quite simply that “somewhere along the line it just sort of exploded.” Credit for the album’s artfully executed explosions belongs, in large part, to classical wunderkind Nico Muhly (Antony & The Johnsons, Grizzly Bear, Björk), who is responsible for the album’s dramatic string, brass, and woodwind arrangements. One of the pair’s most impressive feats, “Animal Arithmetic”, is a master study in balancing structure and chaos.
On six of Go’s nine tracks, Jónsi sings in English for the first time. Due to a combination of his strong accent and his propensity for singing in a soft purr and elongating his vowels, I barely noticed his English lyrics at first. It seems that regardless of language, his lyrics will always glide by in a gossamer blur. In the context of Go , this might be for the best, since his English lyrics tend to be rather platitudinous (i.e. “Go do, you'll know how to / Just let yourself, fall into landslide”). However, I would chock this up mostly to the fact that he hasn’t quite mastered the English language. Thankfully, Jónsi’s lapses into the cliche come across more like the words of an overly earnest optimist, less like the cloying poetry it would be in lesser hands.
Although Sigur Rós’s music typically evokes the ice fields and mountains of Iceland, Go rarely evokes such rugged terrain. Instead, it goes for a decidedly pastoral vibe with lush and sanguine songs. Coincidentally, the two less-than-stellar moments on Go (“Tornado” and “Hengilás”) are the ones that recall Sigur Rós the most, but they are still more than worth your time. I was expecting only good things from Jónsi’s solo debut, but he surpassed my expectations by a sizable margin. Go is a joyous and unique work that bristles with the hum of life.