It’s been ten years since Jónsi released a solo album. His 2010 debut, Go!, pointed the way as the experimental pioneer charted a course for a new sound. Go! has a much more optimistic and sunny disposition than the Sigur Rós back catalogue, however, his deviation from the band’s characteristic sound was slender. Now on Shiver, Jónsi has enlisted the equally experimental mind of A. G. Cook as the album’s producer and a co-writer of many of the album’s tracks.
A. G. Cook is the founder of music label PC Music and it would be an understatement to label the label as merely ‘experimental’. PC Music is experimental and then some. Acts such as Hannah Diamond, Kero Kero Bonito, and Danny L. Harle illustrate the eclecticism and peculiarity of the label and its acts. Their output leaves you simultaneously hooked and nonplussed; both lost and found as the label charts a course for a new music heavily influenced by noise, internet culture, and melodic and harmonic extremes. Cook has gradually worked his new style into the periphery of the mainstream; he has worked with 100 Gecs, SOPHIE, and is now Charli XCX’s creative director as she continues to release new music breaking the pop mold.
It is little surprise, therefore, that the PC Music brand of extreme experimentation features and influences Jónsi’s Shiver throughout. The album opens with “Exhale”, a sparse arrangement in which fragments of Jónsi crawl out from the silence reborn and regenerated. “Exhale” may not be the strongest or most memorable track on the album but it sets the tone and expectation immediately. This is not Go! or Sigur Rós. Leave your expectations at the door.
The title track “Shiver” gently introduces the familiar and beautiful innocence of Joni’s falsetto. Slowly the soundscape of the album builds around the voice. Synthetic timbres crescendo from the ether, their sounds become more and more artificial, they become more and more difficult, more aggressive. Jónsi’s voice is a lonely vulnerability trapped in an unpredictable soundboard capable of dark curiosity and a vicious bite. The baroque-pop and post-rock are heavily waning. Incoming are the EDM, IDM, noise, and dark ambient.
The strongest changes to Jónsi’s sound and highest PC Music influences are heard on the fourth track, “Wildeye”. A. G. Cook and his kitchen sink, more-is-more philosophy is in full effect throughout. The starkest and seemingly ‘un-Jónsi’ element is the use of mixed media, hocketed drum loops. A hocket is a medieval musical technique in which a melodic or rhythmic line is completed by several interviewing parts, each part, in isolation would be sparse, but tangled together the parts make one comprehensible piece of music. The drum loops in “Wildeye” use unfamiliar and unusual sounds, fuzz, click, shoes squeaking in a hocketed collage that is so bizarre but so right. Like a sincere duet, or Jazz musicians trading four-bar solos; Jónsi and the drums take turns at the forefront of the song’s ever-developing texture. “Wildeye” is a real feast for the ears as well as a great palate cleanser and display of Jónsi and Cook’s combined musical force.
On the topic of palate cleansers, a heavily baroque influenced chorale sits at the center of the album. With a clever and beautiful approach to counterpoint and harmony, “Sumarið sem aldrei’ kom” stops you fast in your tracks and forces you to contemplate what this album is; a true exploration of musicality and musical capability. With lyrics in Icelandic, it can be difficult to pull out a narrative, however, the song’s musical structure does feel like an Orwellian prophecy. We begin with soft acoustic voices, slowly they morph into synthetic and digitally modified versions of themselves. The song grows and additional electronic instrumentation is added, countermelodies are drawn from the fractals of Jónsi’s voice now shimmer and dance over Jónsi’s initial chorale.
Further exploration and unexpected turns feature in the triptych of pop songs towards the tail end of the album. Beginning with a Europop influenced Robyn feature “Salt Licorice” into a jittery Jónsi ballad “Hold” and culminating with the lead single “Swill”, which may be both the closest and furthest the album gets to the Sigur Rós sound. ‘Swill’ by far is the most ‘pop’ song on the album, but with its screeching synthesizer refrain, pounding mixed-media drum loops, and thick texture it could easily feature on a PC Music label compilation. The marriage of the two contrasting worlds is a soaring success that surprises and intrigues in equal measure.
It is difficult to see this as Jónsi’s second solo album. The production and influence of A. G. Cook are at the forefront of the album’s sound. The combination of Jónsi and Cook may be an unlikely one but it works so well. This, the first release, of their collaboration, has produced an excellent album that is an exciting highlight of 2020 so far.