Album: Jónsi – Shiver review

by Philip Moss

Jónsi continues on his voyage of sonic and language explorations on yet another ambitious release

Since 1994, Jón Thor Birgisson’s work with Sigur Rós has held near mythical status – in part, due to the Icelandic group’s tenebrous aesthetics, but also because – bar All Alright from the band’s best record, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust – they have never released anything that is voiced in English. So when his debut solo record, Go, was released in 2010, and it was announced that the majority of its tracks would be sung in neither Icelandic, or Hopelandic (a made up language void of semantic meaning), but instead English, it prompted his fellow band members to release a statement stating that they’d have preferred this not be the case.

Not only did Go lift the mystique in a lyrical sense, it also saw the Icelandic songwriter dig into a more overt pop sound – which, on the likes of Go Do and Animal Arithmetic, even edged close to Disney territory in its sugary melodic sweetness.

But having contributed to In Light, a standout moment on Julianna Barwick’s Healing is a Miracle, the ambient feel has clearly paid influence in return. Exhale is layered, warm and almost soothing – growing from soft bass swells and piano backed, almost isolated vocals, into a swirl of alluring melody and flashes of that falsetto – it is not so much a guiding light, but a gentle gateway to a record full of wild twists and turns.

Another artist whose career has been shrouded in true ambiguity is Elizabeth Fraser – whose band, Cocteau Twins, not only shared a soaring aural field with Sigur Rós, but who also buried her almost indistinguishable words in reverb. Unfortunately, Cannibal, on which she features here, is perhaps the LP’s biggest letdown. Firstly, it finds Jónsi in the sort of cliché territory that would make his bandmates wish he had stuck to singing in Hopelandic here too. But, also, bar a few syllables of spoken word, which are mildly reminiscent of the title track from Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow, it is confusing to feature someone with the talents and pull of Fraser – and let’s face it, it is really is quite a coup – yet resign her to the role of an indistinguishable backing vocalist.

Shiver’s chief collaborator, though, is A.G Cook (Charlie XCX, PC Music, GFOTY), and the pair’s experimentations soon show themselves as a key part of the record’s feel. In contrast to the opener, the title track is harsh – an electrical storm of churning of beats, metallic synths and clashing layered voices, which ring in and out. But the song also feels devoid of arrangement – oozing and spilling like a tin of black paint being launched by Jackson Pollock at an already cracked canvas. Where we are headed isn’t important, per se, as the excitement here was clearly in the pair’s journey.

Swedish star, Robyn, joins on perhaps the most chaotic cut – Salt Licorice – and although melodically strong, it does verge very close to being a sensory overload, as the knobs on the processor are twisted right up to their limits. While closing pair, Grenade and Beautiful Boy, offer a moment’s reflection – bringing things to a calmer finale – as the latter ambiently bookends the conclusion of the songwriter’s darkest collection – perhaps 2013’s Kveikur apart – in similar fashion to how it began.

Overall – sitting sonically somewhere just over the hill beyond Bon Iver’s i,i and Sufjan Stevens’ The Ascension – Jónsi continues to be a visionary who follows both his instincts and his heart. As has been the case throughout his career to date, Shiver proves once more that they are a guide he can trust.

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