With their first two LPs—2011’s My Head Is an Animal and 2015’s Beneath the Skin–Icelandic troupe Of Monsters and Men mixed indie folk, chamber pop, and other wonderful styles into characteristically luscious, reserved, and heartfelt gems. Full of arrangements both nuanced and bombastic, as well as deeply distinctive vocals and melodies, the records showcased an exceptional formula. For better or worse, their third outing, Fever Dream, charts a substantially different route. Although it maintains that core Of Monsters and Men essence at times, Fever Dream‘s startling emphasis on synthpop immediacy and glamour makes it simultaneously laudable from an artistic viewpoint and disappointing from a fan angle. In other words, they—like all artists—should be commended for challenging themselves and taking their audience to new places. Yet, if that ultimate destination is inferior to the starting point, it’s not an entirely beneficial endeavor.
Whereas the past two collections were largely melancholic and embroidered odes perfect for acoustic guitar recreations, this one uses more programmed elements to yield brighter and bouncier tracks that appeal to a wider audience. In a recent interview with NME, co-lead singer and guitarist Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdóttir said that it focuses more on a “female perspective” and serves as a “learning curve” for what the band can be. Without a doubt, admirers of the aforementioned debut will find Fever Dream startling at times. But once its new direction is fully appreciated, it’s easy to comprehend how the quintet’s beloved DNA is still at the heart of it all.
The album opens with the lead single and most atypical tune, “Alligator”. With its average backbeats, buzzing guitar chords, shimmering undercurrents, and triumphantly glitzy vocals, it’s almost unrecognizable as one of their songs. Instead, “Alligator” conjures the latter-day stylistic deviations of Muse and Pure Reason Revolution, fitting alongside countless generic empowerment anthems residing within modern pop music. It’s catchy and iridescent enough to appeal in a commercial sense, but it lacks almost all of what makes Of Monsters and Men exceptional in the first place.
Elsewhere, “Ahay”, “Róróró”, “Wars”, and “Sleepwalker” incorporate more treasured trademarks into that newfound identity, so they’re at least adequate compromises. Still, there’s a level of mainstream plasticity and consumer motivation to it all that’s hard to ignore or forgive, with even the lyrical quality taking a hit. (Compare, for example, “Wake me up / I’m fever dreaming / And now I lose control / I’m fever dreaming / Shake it out” from “Alligator” with “Soon it will all be over / And buried with our past / We used to play outside when we were young / And full of life and full of love” from their breakthrough duet, “Little Talks“.)
Thankfully, Of Monster and Men’s cherished fortes are in abundance elsewhere. The beautifully gloomy and meager piano ballad “Waiting for the Snow” is a perfect illustration of their knack for captivating poeticisms and poignant instrumentation. It also demonstrates how wonderfully the voices of Hilmarsdóttir and her vocalist counterpart, Ragnar Þórhallsson, work in tandem. The Þórhallsson-dominated “Stuck in Gravity” is among their most heartbreakingly exquisite compositions ever. While the rocking “Wild Roses” is celebratory but frank, with a robust and danceable backing that’s quite infectious. The penultimate “Under a Dome” is largely ambient and ceaselessly heavenly soothing, blanketing you in sublime comfort.
Fever Dream is a very good album, don’t get me wrong, with a lot of what has always made Of Monsters and Men stand out. Likewise, the band should be applauded for stretching their boundaries and trying new things, even if the end result somewhat betrays what made longtime fans fall in love with them in the first place. At its weakest spots, however, it replaces their immensely strong and individualized songwriting and arrangements with something far more superficial and run-of-the-mill, which is a shame. Thus, the problem with Fever Dream isn’t exactly that it sounds so different from its predecessors. It’s that Of Monsters and Men have lost some of their uniqueness and quality in the process.