Jónsi Storms into Futuristic Pop Territory on 'Shiver'

BY Adam FeibelPublished Oct 1, 2020

A full 10 years after his first solo album, Go, Icelandic musical ambassador Jónsi sets aside the picturesque post-rock of Sigur Rós and fully commits to the cutting-edge sounds of ultra-modern pop with this long-awaited followup, Shiver. Collaborating with the audacious English producer A. G. Cook (Charli XCX, GFOTY, Hannah Diamond), Jónsi storms into new territory with an updated arsenal of sounds while unfortunately leaving some of his identity behind.

Like much of his work with Sigur Rós, Jónsi's solo debut bloomed like the flora and fauna of spring. It incorporated tasteful bits of digital sampling into a wider landscape of natural, earthly sounds. That's not the style of A. G. Cook, whose polarizing PC Music record label is known for dense, noisy, tightly compressed and exaggeratedly synthetic takes on pop music. So, what you get with Shiver is a dense, noisy, tightly compressed and exaggeratedly synthetic take on Jónsi.

Part of PC Music's whole thing is about creating hyper-modern personas for their artists and deliberately drawing attention to the artificiality of the music. But Jónsi's artistic identity was written into the pages of public consciousness long ago, and the appeal of his music thus far is that it tends to evoke natural, earthly beauty — all the vast expanses of untouched land, the deep blue reaches of the ocean and the unreachable heights of the sky. Here, he garbles that image with sci-fi scenes of claustrophobic raves and computer hacking. Instead of being in the open air of Iceland, we're in the dystopian technopolis of Blade Runner's Los Angeles.

Songs like "Shiver" have so much beautiful melody that's buried in sonic scratches and glitches; any emotional resonance is overtaken by the kind of bass thump and gated electronics you'd expect from a David Guetta set. "Swill" takes a song that belongs at the sentimental ending of a feel-good movie and adds industrial buzzsaws and thundering hammers, placing it halfway between a drive-in theatre makeout session and a day at the local auto parts factory. "Salt Licorice" works quite well as a vehicle for Robyn, who steals the song with her sugar-sweet voice and extraordinary ear for electronic pop, yet it sounds out of place, not only in the broader Jónsi catalogue, but also among the already scattered ideas on Shiver.

"Cannibal," with its sombre atmosphere, crystal guitar sounds, deep washes of reverb and a lovely contribution from Cocteau Twins' Elizabeth Fraser, is among the most resilient to the digital interference of the PC Music effect. Yet that's followed immediately by "Wildeye," a sonic assault that's absolutely consumed by that style; the percussion is absolutely pulverizing — at higher volumes, it's literally painful. Sometimes Jónsi and Cook will add random noise just for the hell of it: "Kórall" sounds like they ran Sigur Rós's "Festival" through FL Studio and an 8-bit PSG and then decided to blow it to smithereens.

Conversely, "Sumarið sem aldrei kom" ("The Summer That Never Came") is a more barren landscape of minimal piano and vocal harmony, hewing closer to the ambient, choral sounds of Jónsi's duo with partner Alex Somers (who also co-produced Go). Likewise, "Grenade" employs lush, breathable instrumentals that complement, rather than distract from, the captivating countertenor that's the main source of his power. "Exhale" might even be one of the best songs of the year; it's spacious and still, with a chorus that feels like a weight coming off your chest: "It's just the way it is / It isn't your fault / It isn't your fault / Just let it go."

Yet "Exhale" is betrayed by the rest of the album, which tries to suffocate what traditionally brings Jónsi's music close to the heart. Throughout, he seems to be zig-zagging between adherence to his established mode de vie and a full-on commitment to this aesthetic. Shiver has moments of excellence, but rarely does it feel like this is how it's supposed to be.

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