Jónsi – Go

Jónsi - Go

For better or worse (but leaning ardently toward the former), it’s true: Jón Þór Birgisson has placed his day job in Sigur Rós on hold and gone the way of the solo artist. Had he simply and eloquently faded away – like so many of his band’s most sublime songs – no one would’ve faulted him. Sigur Rós was easily one of the most relevant and influential bands of the 21st century’s first decade, suffusing downtempo art rock with calculated application of tension and release; many have tried to emote like these guys, but few have come close to matching the intensity with which they did so.

Elegiac, sophisticated, and at times utterly breathtaking, Jónsi and his Reykjavik brethren rarely failed to induce goosebumps with their ambient soundscapes. Yet as deeply affecting as the body of its work was, the band’s detractors were keen to point out just how lethargic, brooding, and numbing the proceedings could be at times, particularly on 2002’s (), which for some was a frustrating amalgam of gibberish tongues and esoteric motifs.

If his main band’s music was the sound of twilight and the ensuing darkness, then Jónsi’s latest output – and most consistently awesome since 1999’s Ágætis Byrjun – is the sound of the rising sun on a gorgeous spring morning. Occasionally, the cloying sense of naivety that pervades this LP grates on the nerves a bit. With that shortcoming aside, you need look no further for some of the most beautiful and resplendent music making of the year. It’s as simple as that. An album bursting with this much unabashed optimism, vitality, and youthful promise seeks to soften even the most hardened souls, and it overwhelmingly succeeds. If you’re not imbued with just a little bit more zest for life at the end of Go’s 40 minutes, then you are one seriously embittered cynic.

From the outset, Go – which also features Jónsi’s longtime boyfriend and musical collaborator Alex Somers – displays a greater pop sensibility that Sigur Rós had only begun to flirt with on its last album, 2008’s Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust. “Go Do” begins with skittering fragments of Jónsi’s lithe voice that give way to a bombastic drumbeat, as if being startled out of a deep and tranquil sleep. Nico Muhly’s sprightly orchestral arrangements – which work the same wonders for Jónsi’s music as they did for Grizzly Bear on Veckatimest – are immediately apparent, a fluttering riot of chirpy flutes and icy hot string harmonies. “Animal Arithmetic” is cut from a similar cloth, utilizing percussion that sounds like it was culled from a kitchen pantry. This being one of six tracks on the disc that finds Jónsi singing in English, it’s impressive to hear how fluidly he juxtaposes his trademark melismatic falsetto on the track’s chorus with the spitfire delivery of the verses: “Wake up / comb my hair / making food disappear.” A less than perfect handle on English grammar coupled with stories of life’s trivial routines come close to turning the song into the stuff of a children’s picture book, but the threat turns out to be nonexistent, primarily because Jónsi has always directed more attention to the “how” of his singing rather than the “what” of his message.

Oh yes, that voice. We may never know why his crystalline tenor possesses such power or how it manages to distill so many emotions in a single arching melody, but it’s pretty obvious that Jónsi works it to maximum effect, particularly on Go’s less frenetic tracks. “Tornado,” which sounds like the bizarro cousin of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song,” finds Jónsi effortlessly cooing in tandem with Muhly’s swelling string arrangements. “Grow Till Tall” is probably the album’s most transcendent track, working in cyclical fashion – both lyrically and musically – until it has layered itself thick with soaring vocals and fuzzed out electronic percussion. The longest of the album’s nine songs, it’s also the likeliest to leave the largest lump in your throat.

No matter the speed at which it moves, Go glows brightly with a formidable sense of ambition and hope. Lead single “Boy Lilikoi” may weave a narrative that sounds like it belongs in Where the Wild Things Are, but when Jónsi sings, “You run / you’re free / you climb endless trees / you reignite,” you can’t help but latch onto his newfound sense of purpose. Sigur Rós may be on indefinite hiatus, but clearly, we have no cause for concern with its frontman.