On ‘Shiver,’ Jónsi Collaborates With A.G. Cook to Give His Meditative Musings a Glitchy Jolt
Icelandic singer, multi-instrumentalist and visionary Jónsi first emerged in the late ‘90s as frontman of post-rock phenomenon Sigur Rós, whose dreamy, transcendent stylings anticipated a grandeur that countless artists have sought to emulate, but few have managed to match. Jónsi ventured into instrumental, meditative stylings with his partner Alex Sommers on 2009’s critically acclaimed “Riceboy Sleep” and its long awaited follow up, last year’s “Lost & Found.” Along the way, he has tackled soundtracks, taken up highly conceptual collaborative projects, released a live album, and plenty more. A whole decade has passed since he released his debut solo album, “Go,” and his follow up, “Shiver,” finds him recasting his signature sounds and venturing into bold new sonic territory.
For the latest effort, Jónsi teamed up with A.G. Cook, founder of vanguard electronic collective PC Music. Cook’s sound is a brazen, tongue-in-cheek celebration of everything synthetic and overdone, with productions that indulge both glitchy edge and pop extravagance. Known for his work with the likes of Charli XCX, Cook inhabits a realm worlds away from the space between the pastoral and the celestial that characterizes Jónsi’s music. But the two manage to work wonders together. Cook somewhat steps back from his usual knob tweaking hyperactivity, letting Jónsi’s voice present itself unadulterated, but transforming the productions into an entirely new variation of the adventurous spirit that Jónsi has always manifested.
Opener “Exhale” rings like a sonic tranquilizer, with Jónsi directing breathing exercises in a hushed, soothing tone. He accrues momentum from a blur of mutating noise, sweeping pads, and processed vocal overlays, but persists in his placid posturing, consoling, “Just let it go.” The title track spins his gossamer vocals into an ethereal display, with creaking swivels and crashing cymbals juxtaposed with tinkling melodies, and fading tones that swell and crystallize. Lyrics like “Get away from me” are a marked departure from the welcoming beginnings, although delivered in a tone that seems to contradict the expressed sentiment.
As the type of fiercely independent auteur who finds himself troubled by comparison to any other artist, Jónsi suffered years of likening to the Cocteau Twins, only to finally check out their music and discover himself a fan. On “Cannibal,” he collaborates with the Twins’ Liz Fraser. In spite of the wealth of detail that often characterizes it, Jónsi’s music tends to be rather pointed, with all musical components purposefully employed, rather than carelessly strewn about. “Cannonball” is a case in point, developing slowly, with Fraser’s voice seeping into the mix ever so slightly, spurred on by percussion to slowly open up. By the end, she is weaving florid, soprano melodies around Jónsi’s, in lush harmonies over stutters of static, as he sings, “I’m a cannibal / I remove your breathing heart,” only to ultimately clarify, “You know it’s only out of love.”
The music takes a radical turn on “Wildeye,” with a madcap percussive clatter that gives way to whimsical stops and starts. Over the shifting tectonics, Jónsi’s wailing rings with a new abstraction, his lines interspersed with wordless spurts that push his falsetto into such an alien timbre that when he arrives at a refrain of “I lose control,” he is entirely believable. The busy electronic onslaught develops into a dance pulse of detuned synths, dissipates into a rustle of harp tinklings and ambience, then culminates in an unhinged, glitchy flurry. A lull follows in the particularly sedate, hymnlike “Sumarið Sem Aldrei Kom.” Jónsi harmonizes a sluggish, spacious melody, amplifying the arrangement with each successive verse, reaching a peak of beaming, choral grandeur, and winding gracefully down.
Jónsi continues to sing with serene simplicity on “Kórall,” his vocals this time dressed up with all sorts of dynamic sound candy that sputters, hisses, and growls. A labyrinthine melody unravels, with chimes evolving into bright synths. Vocal processing somewhere between Auto-tune and whale song makes its way through torrents of stuttering, sliced operatic snippets that recall the likes of Holly Herndon. By the end, A.G. Cook has gone to town, punctuating the track with machine gun percussion. “Salt Licorice” continues with the same general sonic template, but takes on new dimensions, courtesy of Swedish pop sensation Robyn, whose direct, sugary stylings, combined with the loosely structured abstractions of the music strike a successful balance between avant indulgences and immediate accessibility, as she sings of a personified “Scandivian pain” with lyrics that sound equally endearing and critical.
“Hold” finds Jónsi sounding more sonorous and full bodied over another ethereal soundscape that A.G. Cook splatters with pitched-up vocal slices that offset the commanding vocal with hiccups, and frame Jónsi’s strained professing of love with the trappings of a party several levels removed. The upbeat, celebratory aesthetics are explored more directly on “Swill,” which finds Jónsi’s modest musings breaking into a hard-hitting instrumental refrain, repete with pitch-shifting siren synths, and a corresponding pop directness to his singing. Meanwhile, the vulnerability that has characterized so many songs reaches lugubrious heights, with lyrics like “As I Drown / You Will Own/ My Soul.”
This segues naturally into more languid, emotive outpourings on “Grenade,” with Jónsi singing about dismantling a grenade and promising his care over more elusive percussive splatters, and erupting into sweeping balladry that finds his vocals soaring to new heights and imploding into his most delicate falsetto yet. Finally, “Beautiful Boy” is a deconstructed closer, with Jónsi singing the titular phrase, sounding more fearlessly saccharine than ever, over detuned drones that span the open space and pan out elegantly.
Jónsi’s wispy musings, sprawling sentimentality, and zen-like composure lends itself to meditative strains of music. One reason that his solo debut, “Go,” made such an impact is that it managed to channel the same spirit, instinct, and richness with more of an instantaneous punch. The EDM excesses have defined much of the last decade have hardly been simultaneously celebrated and lampooned as successfully as in the productions of PC Music, and Jónsi’s joining with AG Cook is testament to the adventurous, avant spirit that dates back to Jónsi days of bow-guitar with Sigur Ros. The collaboration could have easily led to a forced, tacky disaster, but it turns out a success. Jónsi’s trademark tricks are on full display, with his uncompromising falsetto making its way into nearly every track, and tempered, classically oriented instincts informing most of the music. This is merely shuffled about, abstracted, and reinvigorated by Cook, who brings out new aspects to Jónsi’s craft along with Liz Fraser and Robyn. “Shiver” is a collection of serene sounds, framed in exhilarating, electronic outbursts, and it comes across as yet another intriguing iteration in the bold artistic evolution of Jónsi.
“Shiver” releases Oct. 2 on Apple Music.