It was my 21st birthday, and I was driving from Reykjavik to the small village of Vik on the south central coast of Iceland. I was doing a year-long study abroad program at the University of Iceland and I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the troll-ridden, windswept Icelandic countryside in the darkest depths of winter to celebrate my 21st birthday. With me was a young lady with whom I was hopelessly infatuated at the time. Together we descended into the sunless wilds of Iceland in mid-December.
On the car stereo was múm’s masterpiece Yesterday Was Dramatic, Today Is Okay, which we listened to over and over again throughout our haunted pilgrimage. One of the ways that Icelanders cope with the mid-winter subarctic darkness is through Christmas lights — greens, reds, and slowly fading/expanding white lights floated towards us out of the rural emptiness. During the brief periods of daylight frozen waterfalls, tortured volcanic rock formations, and impossibly vast blue glaciers were visible through the hallucinatory, murky dawn. The memory of this journey is simultaneously hauntingly dreamlike, and intensely vivid in my memory. It was, and still is, the best birthday that I have ever had, and it is impossible for me to listen to múm’s music without becoming caught up in reveries associated with it.
múm is from Iceland, and the band’s music encapsulates the atmosphere and feral grandeur of the Icelandic countryside better than any other music that I can think of. But even for people who have never been to Iceland, it seems like very similar images must come to mind when listening to records like Yesterday Was Dramatic, Today Is Okay, Finally We Are No One and múm’s beautiful new record Smilewound.
Throughout its career, múm has struggled with varying degrees of success to reconcile its glitchy, electronic side with their organic, acoustic side. This balance was achieved beautifully on earlier releases, but was performed somewhat more queasily on records like the excellent but unsettling Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy andSummer Make Good. Smilewound finds the balance perfectly, and achieves exactly what a band at this point in its career should hope to achieve.
The songs on Smilewound are unmistakably múm-like, with the warm electronic tones and skittering playful beats that are the band’s trademark, but these songs sound more mature and distinctive than anything that the group has released to date. There is space and patience in these songs. The traditional instruments and relatively unprocessed vocals are given time to unfurl and they feel perfectly at home with the electronic elements and more effects laden vocals. These songs are beautiful and challenging without being uncomfortable and vaguely feverish like the songs on Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy andSummer Make Good often are.
Is that Kyle Minogue I hear? Why yes. Good jobs guys on getting her on board. Is that the long-absent and much missed Gyða, one half of the spell-binding Valtýsdóttir twins who bailed after Finally We Are No One? Indeed it is. Welcome back, your voice makes my eyes glaze over and pupils dilate. There are many tracks on Smilewound that could stand on their own like singles, while the album itself works as a perfectly unfolding cohesive work.
Smilewound beckons and fans out, drawing the listener further and further into its own sonic world, both familiar to fans of múm’s sound and very much unlike anything that they have done previously. I am listening to Smilewound for the zillionth time in like a week and zang it is my 21st birthday and I am in that car hurdling into the Icelandic darkness while elves beckon from the roadside and Odin himself looms on the edge of my consciousness. Wow. Beautiful. Amazing.