As the leader of Icelandic post-rock giants Sigur Rós, Jónsi Birgisson is known for crafting textured, subtly expansive arrangements that operate in the ethereal realm and reach something almost elemental. His collaborative projects with Alex Somers, from 2009’s All Animals to Lost and Found a decade later, veer closer towards a soothing but persistent kind of ambience, eschewing the stirring crescendos that gave his work with Sigur Rós a sense of emotional heft and dramatic momentum – enough of it to make him a suitable candidate for soundtracking the heartfelt Cameron Crowe vehicle We Bought a Zoo. It might seem odd, then, that 25 years into his career, he’s decided to recruit 30-year-old PC Music founder and Charli XCX’s creative director A.G. Cook – not exactly the kind of guy whose music you’d find in a ‘Chill Vibes’ Spotify playlist.
But though Jónsi’s past output might have occasionally leaned more towards minimalism than subversive maximalism, his debut solo album, 2010’s Go, was loud and uplifting, anchoring in anthemic choruses and larger-than-life instrumentals. Condensing the epic sounds that were usually spread out across several minutes in Sigur Rós songs, Go’s brightest moments packed the kind of dizzying intensity that’s become emblematic of the hyperpop aesthetic that Cook helped birth. And as he proved on his massive debut album, 7G, Cook’s musical language is certainly not restricted to the confines of a single genre. By working with him as a co-producer on his first solo project in a decade, however, Jónsi was able to strip things down to reveal the true nature of these songs rather than augmenting and continuously building on top of them.
The result is at once Jónsi’s most immediate and abrasive-sounding record yet. The title track spotlights Jónsi’s signature crooning as he sings atop glassy synths that seem to be suffocating him the more distorted they become, before catapulting him into transcendent new heights and then once again dissolving. Throughout the album, the clash of stylistic approaches mostly has the effect of amplifying the tension that’s characterized the artist’s most dynamic compositions rather than stifling it. ‘Kórall’ is a marvellous example, its twinkling arpeggios not just complementing Jónsi’s innocent vocals but also playing off them in an engaging way. The track is given enough space to grow and expand before disintegrating into a final minute of nightmarish noise, as if to expose the fragility of those gossamer synths.
As intriguing as those moments are, Shiver works best when Jónsi and Cook combine their talents to make something new and exciting. Bouncing through metallic beats and glitchy electronics, ‘Wildeye’ is a deliriously euphoric cut about letting yourself go precisely because it forces Jónsi to step out of his comfort zone, both lyrically and vocally. In a similar lane, the soaring ‘Swill’ somehow manages to fuse stomping hyperpop abrasion with a more conventional Jónsi performance without sounding painfully awkward. Robyn guests on the playfully exuberant ‘Salt Licorice’, twisting a classic Europop sound into its most delightfully unbridled extremes. As an artist whose work normally oscillates between the relatively low-key modes of melancholy and solace, Jónsi sounds refreshingly carefree when he embraces the simple pleasures and darkest corners of pop.
Unfortunately, some of the quieter tracks on Shiver fail to recreate that magic. Despite featuring emotive and interestingly touched-up vocal performances, ‘Hold Up’ and ‘Grenade’ end up feeling surprisingly bare at their core, conjuring a mood that feels overly familiar in its melodramatic tones. By comparison, a track like ‘Cannibal’ mesmerizes with its lush melodic textures and compelling lyrics, while also benefitting from an enchanting guest appearance from Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Frazer. “You’ve got perfect skin/ Soft enough porcelain,” he intones, before going on to declare, “I’m a cannibal/ Swallow everything that was.” That visceral image turns out to be an apt metaphor for the approach he takes, but hasn’t yet perfected, on Shiver: tear everything apart, then make something beautiful all over again. It’s that act, he seems to imply, that makes the difference between a comforting piece of art and a liberating one.