Pop music and icebergs have a lot in common. They each have a pronounced, visible tip, and a large, often invisible body. The two parts are essentially the same – they’re both part of the same massive chunk of ice, after all – but there is a large element separating the top from the overshadowed body: the ocean. If the ocean represents mainstream commercial success, then Icelandic sextet Of Monsters and Men‘s debut full-length, My Head is an Animal, sits just under sea level.
Making interesting, creative pop music is no easy feat, but on My Head, Of Monsters and Men make it seem effortless. Tracks like ‘Little Talks’ (which gave the band their first taste of notoriety after being put into rotation on a Philadelphia-based modern rock radio station) and ‘Mountain Sound’ are two examples of what the band does best. Both songs are filled to the brim with hooks, harmonies and sing-along choruses, yet the addition of unique instrumentation to both tracks (i.e., trumpet on the former and accordion on the latter) keeps things from feeling trite or overdone.
Another important (yet less original) element to the album’s sound is the dual male-female vocal lead. Shared by Ragnar þórhallsson (who has a full, mid-range tone) and Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir (whose accent-laced yelp can sound like the adopted lovechild of Bjork and Feist), the vocals are ably handled, but are far from excellent. In most of today’s harmony-centric indie-folk music (see Mumford & Sons), this would damage the album’s success. But Of Monsters and Men seem more concerned with passion than perfection – a quality that can be seen as either endearing or bothersome.
Up until now, this may all have sounded a bit gimmicky – and on the first listen, the album may, too – but underneath all the bright accordion, glockenspiel and trumpet, this album holds a surprising amount of emotional depth. ‘Little Talks’, despite being one of the happiest-sounding songs on the album, is arguably the saddest:
“Just let me go we’ll meet again soon / No wait, wait, wait for me / Please hang around / I’ll see you when I fall asleep.”
The lyrics, as lean as they are, deal with the timeless songwriting tropes of love and loss. Yet, they’re handled in a candidly refreshing way. The same can be said for the rest of the tracks on offer here. Simplistic; sometimes cryptic; and often cathartic, the writing isn’t always stellar, but it’s never short on interesting, either. ‘Little Talks’ is a superb track, and will no doubt lead to further commercial success in North America.
Also excellent are mid-album standouts ‘Six Weeks’ — which slowly builds in intensity as it progresses — and opener ‘Dirty Paws’, whose wordless chorus sounds like it was made for a stadium.
From my purview, the album’s penultimate track, ‘Lakehouse,’ reigns supreme. While the writing is consistent with the rest of the album, what really makes this song shine is the percussion, which leads to a passionate, emotive swell as the song reaches its end.
Hypothetically speaking, ‘Lakehouse’ serves as the stronger close to the album than its successor, ‘Yellow Light’. The latter is a fine song, but the lack of its celebratory predecessor’s intensity and passion is conspicuous.
Despite its setbacks, My Head is an Animal is both an impressive, nuanced statement of intent from Iceland’s next great musical export and one of the most fun, successful and catchy pop albums to be released this year, thus far. As of now, it’s difficult to ascertain whether this is a sign of artistic ambition, or a grab at commercial success. (Of Monsters and Men are signed to Universal Republic Records, after all.)
While unlikely in today’s musical landscape, it’s possible that My Head is both. It appeals to the casual radio listener, as well as the more scrutinous follower of alternative forms of art. Of Monsters and Men is, as such, an anomaly. After all, the recent success of artists such as Gotye proves that there is room on the charts for artistic integrity.
Having said that, don’t expect On Monsters and Men to remain under sea level for much longer. Before you know it, they’ll be on the tip of iceberg, a place that they rightfully deserve to be.