Able to reach wuthering heights with his majestic leggiero tenor, Jon Thor Birgisson, better known as Jónsi from established Icelandic post-rock band, Sigur Rós, is capable of leaving captivated admirers in a ravished hallucinatory state. Applying crooning whispers, frantic shrieks, siren shrills and arpeggiated trembles to predominantly symphonic material, his stentorian voice soars beyond the galaxy.
Left to his own devices, the eloquent tenor has temporarily moved away from the safe confines of his long-time Sigur Rós colleagues to hook up with intimate co-producing companion, Alex Somers, distinguished neo-classical piano arranger, Nico Muhly, and perspicuously precocious percussionist, Samuli Kosminen. With stunning entrée, Go, these impulsive collaborators elevate Jónsi’s sterling reputation for revealing radiant tranquility apropos to the alien snowbound vistas encompassing his native northerly European country island.
In the beginning, Sigur Rós’ formative 1997 debut, Von, showed promise. But international would not come till later with 2001’s superb Ágætis Byrjun, where Jónsi’s angelic choirboy brooding and feverish mantra-like mysticism fronted gauzy, interstellar dreamscapes of uncommon Epicurean splendor. Moving from mysterious slow-burn séances and ominously starker weepers to meditatively uplifting ethereality, its gloriously anesthetized serenity gave birth to some of the most impassioned post-millennium labyrinths.
Jónsi’s quavering sentimentality only got better with 2002’s caliginous follow-up, ( ), rendering strung-out lonesomeness above prettier melodies, deliberately slower-paced ballads and expanded spectral illuminations. Increasing the alluringly theatrical, ambient melancholia while descending into a nebulously glacial pace, 2005’s poignantly detailed concerto, Takk, found Sigur Rós delivering their most plaintively fragile elegies yet.
By Sigur Rós’ fifth studio album, 2008’s broader Með Suð I Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust, Jónsi’s rapturous baroque jubilance overrides the cavernous funereal melodramatics in more conventional bass-pulsing, beat-driven settings. Its whimsical opener, “Gobbledigook,” is an acoustic guitar-spangled quick one that slips out of archetypal straight-faced, string-laced classical piano mode. Staying carefree, fanciful childlike xylophone lullaby “Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur” exceedingly verifies the joyful pomp. The heavenly transcendental psychedelia on elliptical requiem “Góðan Daginn” and triumphant brass-armored goosestep “Við Spilum Endalaust” reconfirms the fervid foursome’s previously unearthed fulsome frolic.
Before taking a break so Jónsi’s partners could start families, Sigur Rós had received commercial, movie and TV show endorsements, an unanticipated occurrence considering the bands’ non-conformist, operatic approach and remote homeland. But Jónsi stayed busy. His low-key instrumental project with Somers (2009’s Riceboy Sleeps) and a couple of Jónsi-Somers photograph books surfaced. Eventually convinced to sing in English instead of Icelandic (or his own made-up gibberish, Hopelandic), Jónsi’s compellingly emotional alto-tenor blossomed further via 2010’s crystalline pop abstraction, Go.
On Go’s somniferous tom-stomped, penny-whistled overture, “Go Do,” a full-on rhythm appropriates the yin and yang soft-loud profundity that saddles the less elegantly effervescent Sigur Rós-induced anecdotal strains, befitting lilting orchestral retrenchment, “Tornado.” Lithesome new-waved rave “Animal Arithmetic” and gleaming bushy-tailed enticement “Boy Lilikoi” counteractively magnify the calming resonance and perfect stillness of falsetto-bound shudder “Sinking Friendships,” buzz-swirled, noir veer “Kolnidur,” stirring climactic peak “Grow Till Tall” and flickering closer “Hengilas.”
An impressive step forward, Jónsi’s ventured into the future without forgetting his past. While Somers and Nico Muhly (a Philip Glass protégé) bring celeste and glockenspiel to the table, Samuli Kosminen’s kalimba adds a newfound exotic eccentricity to the Reykjavik native’s solipsistic solitaire sprees and wondrous wailing wanderings. Yet the clarinet, oboe, bassoon and trombone that backup Jónsi’s side troupe would easily fit inside Sigur Rós’ oeuvre.
Anyway, it’s all part of Jónsi’s revelatory ‘acousmatic’ music.
Who were some early influences? Did your parents enjoy music?
My first musical memory was playing the Beatles “Twist & Shout” on the fast speed of my parents’ stereo. Of course, I grew up with heavy metal like AC/DC and Metallica. When I got older, through my parents record club, I started listening to Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Uriah Heep.
It’s ironic you claim metal as a primordial inspiration since your own narcotic opuses are often in direct opposition to those loud guitar-based jams. Your own music is nearly operatic.
(Laughs) Yeah. I think you grab stuff from music you like. From metal, you draw on energy and power. But also, you want to draw from beautiful melodies, too.
Do you find this solo endeavor, Go, to be a true extension of Sigur Rós’ dramatically intense concertos? If not, what are some differences?
I write a lot of music by myself. So I wanted to do this now while Sigur Rós had a break since all the members had babies. I decided the timing was perfect. The main difference is working with different artists and musicians—something I’d never done before. Nico Muhly, an American composer, arranged the brass and strings and played piano. That was exciting for me. We worked fast and spontaneously. I like to work fast. Also, the drummer, Samuli Kosminen, didn’t have much time. But he went to the studio and hadn’t heard the songs before and just started improvising until you come into some cool stuff. It kept things exciting.
You also hooked up with busy Connecticut-based producer, Peter Katis. He’s worked with many indie pop-rock bands. How’d he affect Go? Did he make it more approachable?
He’s a great engineer, talented at documenting sounds put in front of him. It sounds good and I’m happy how he recorded it. He brought real good ideas to the table. He knew how to produce songs. It was fun to work with him.
Has Iceland’s isolation away from the rest of the world helped you create such tremendously forlorn rural vistas?
Probably. I’ve never lived anywhere else. I live in the big city, Reykjavik, which has only 180,000 people. It’s tiny compared to, say New York. I think you have a lot of space to work in and nothing to block your view. It was great to grow up there. But I think it’d be really fun to live in New York City and make music there.
The third Sigur Rós album, ( ), depicted strung-out loneliness and slower paced ballads that seem to counter the uplifting charm of Go.
Definitely. That’s a fair description. During the ‘brackets’ LP, we were living through this phase in our lives. We had to record these songs we’d been playing for many years and we were kind of tired of them in a way. It was hard to record that album. Also, we had done some talking to record labels. That wears you down. We weren’t in the best headspace. This album is completely different. It’s colorful, playful and energetic in a different way. The main thing was working outside the band. I had worked with the same group for 16 years. So it was liberating. It was a healthy experience. I had never written English lyrics before so that was a challenge. My English vocabulary isn’t that big.
The darkest song on Go may be “Kolniður,” where dusky piano and a lush near-falsetto lamentation contrast soothing strings.
Kolniður means pitch black in Icelandic. It is dark lyrically. Wolves are howling and something’s lurking around in the background. It’s mainly about the fears you have in the pit of your stomach.
Lead track, “Go Do,” reminded me of heralded ‘80s new wave artists Yaz, Alison Moyet and Erasure.
I have no clue who the first two are. But Erasure was an amazing band. “Go Do” is a four-on-the-floor, beat-driven pop song. Our drummer, Samuli, is so talented. He turned up in the studio with a suitcase full of shit, like tin cans and trashy drums. He even played on his suitcase.
The most popular cut, “Boy Lilikoi,” features gorgeous crescendos. What’s that song about?
Lilikoi means passion fruit. I got inspired by a trip Alex and I made to Hawaii to work on instrumental project Riceboy Sleeps. It was the nature and the trees. In Iceland, nothing grows. You have to control the forest and the plants.
Your alto tenor on “Around Us” recalled Jon Anderson of prog-rock legends, Yes. Are you familiar with them?
I haven’t listened to Yes. I’ve heard of King Crimson, but not Yes. They sound interesting.
I’ve noticed there is a loose theme emerging on each Sigur Rós album. Did the solo album attempt to have a core concept?
In Sigur Rós, we thought a lot about the flow. But it’s usually not that thematic. But the more you think about it, the closer we came to having a small theme from the group of songs we used.
Have you ever considered doing opera?
No. I kind of hate opera. In my mind, classical opera seems a little silly, formal and stiff. But a few years back when I was touring I used to collect these recordings of opera and really liked these old recordings, probably because of the recording quality. One of my favorites is a singer, Alesandro Morrisette. He’s a castrato—you know, a guy who sounds like his balls were cut off—I was really into him. It’s an amazing 1904 recording.
Jónsi headlines Manhattan’s Hammerstein Ballroom, November 10 and his new album, Go, is available now.