The solo debut from Sigur Ros frontman Jonsi Birgisson came out last week, and though I had every intention of reviewing it then, after the half dozen listens I usually give records before forming opinions about them, I was still struggling to gather my thoughts. Living up to the powerful legacy that Sigur Ros set for themselves can be tough, especially when you’re on your own (just ask Jonsi’s OTHER side project with his boyfriend Alex Somers, titled Jonsi & Alex aka Riceboy Sleeps), and determining whether Jonsi’s new solo album “Go” is worthy of that high bar is really what kept me up at night. Of course the common element among all these things is the vocal performance of Jonsi himself, whose angelic singing pretty much requires bits of beautiful instrumentals to create cohesion and inspire. To help out with such a task on this “solo” effort (in name only), he recruited famed indie composer Nico Muhly to arrange many of the tracks, which of course benefits the record greatly. Jonsi’s boyfriend Alex also played on most of the songs on “Go,” and multi-instrumentalist Samuli Kosminen added strings and woodwinds and guitars and all sorts of digital production work to get this thing sounding unique. And the album does manage to ultimately separate itself from the other Sigur Ros material, but not so much that it feels uncomfortable or even like a mild betrayal of what we’ve come to know Jonsi for in the first place.
Perhaps the main difference between Sigur Ros and Jonsi’s “Go” is the overall tone. Whereas Sigur Ros tends to focus on the ethereal quietly beautiful moments, drenching them in an instrumental haze that tends to be tonally all over the map, Jonsi by comparison goes straight for the jugular with a triumphant, upbeat pop sound. Sigur Ros likes to do 6 minutes of slow burn builds into an explosive triumph of epic proportions, and Jonsi holds down a frantic tempo and prefers a verse-chorus-verse song structure that wraps up in under 5 minutes (most of the time). Really a lot of what you need to know about this Jonsi album can be deciphered just by a careful analysis of the cover art. You get a sketched black and white picture of Jonsi, dressed in a military-esque garb, with a rainbow of colors spraying off his shoulder and neck. How fitting then that many of the songs on “Go” sound like they could be military anthems for battles in some imaginary world with imaginary characters, while at the same time maintaining a radiant joy that can’t help but fill your heart with hope and general positivity. Not that past Sigur Ros albums haven’t been, but listening to this Jonsi record is, on all accounts, a delight that makes it difficult to criticize.
If I do have any problems with “Go,” and in some respects I suppose I do, it’s mainly rooted in the overall lack of emotional heft it conveys. Sure, there are a couple ballads in “Kolindur” and closer “Hengilas,” but outside of those darker, heavier moments, the record can feel a little TOO lighthearted and poppy. It’s like the difference between eating a rice cake and actual cake for a meal. The light and airy nature of the rice cake may be far healthier for you, but it doesn’t do much to fill you up in the end…and it lacks a little flavor. It feels like a weak meal because essentially it is. Cake, on the other hand, may be bad for your health, but a decent sized piece will fill you up and send you on the inevitable sugar high before you crash. For many of these songs, Jonsi goes the rice cake route, and without something heavier in the diet, you’ll finish and be left still hungry for something more substantial. The couple ballads add that extra heaviness to the record, and so they’re beneficial, but it’s just a little sad there aren’t at least one or two more of them – especially considering the amazing things Jonsi tends to do with them. Aside from that, I also am finding an issue with Jonsi’s decision to sing most of the songs on “Go” in English, which is the first time he’s really done something like that for an extended period. With all those Sigur Ros records, I fell in love with the band more because I couldn’t understand what was being said and Jonsi’s vocals served their purpose as just another instrument rather than actual words coming out of somebody’s mouth. Now that I can grasp the concepts and ideas that Jonsi is providing on his solo album, not only is some of the mystery gone, but I find my focus taken away from the overall instrumental compositions and instead focused on what’s being said. In other words, Jonsi singing in English is distracting to me much of the time, and it’s made it harder for me to get into this album as a result.
Between the three projects that Jonsi Birgisson is now involved with, I’d say that his latest *official* solo record ranks second best. While I did enjoy the Jonsi & Alex record from last year, its extended moments of quiet instrumentals just lacked a certain energy or structure. And of course Sigur Ros continues to hold my main attention for the time being, even if they are on a break while “everyone has babies”. Jonsi’s new album “Go” doesn’t quite snare me as much as almost any other Sigur Ros record, but that doesn’t mean it’s worse than them either. As a momentary distraction, or even a project to explore his lighter, poppier side, Jonsi and his friends do an excellent job crafting this album, and if this sounds like your sort of thing, you’d be wise to get yourself a copy. This especially goes for anybody who heard Sigur Ros and felt they were too heavy-handed or moody in the first place – you might find new things to like via the Jonsi record. Should the “brief hiatus” that Sigur Ros are currently on extend for some reason into forever, at least we can take some comfort that Jonsi will keep making good albums to help fill that potential void.
Jonsi- Boy Lilikoi (YSI)