Icelandic composer and multi-instrumentalist Olafur Arnalds has returned with his fourth album in six years, a subtle and modest effort entitled For Now I Am Winter. Historically, words like subtle and modest sometimes run the risk of coming off negative, or at the very least bear the sting of a backhanded compliment. However in Arnalds’ case, those words can be applied in a more favorable and genuine sense. As it is, so much of electronic music these days concedes to such a calculating nature, where most times you can almost hear the copy/paste of a beat or melody being duplicated to seventy-two bars instead of a mere twelve. Plainly spoken, it is refreshing to hear an artist have a little more restraint with his electronic composition.
Another element Arnalds brings is a more pronounced classical sense. Sure, there are plenty of electronic composers that incorporate classical themes and interludes into their compositions, but Arnalds shows a knack for not only incorporating the actual music of the classical tradition, but also the emotion and patience of the form. For instance with opener, “Sudden Throw,” there is a clear desire to ring every little bit of tension out of the sections that build. This is not string sections for the sake of string sections. Elsewhere, “Reclaim” and the title track build similar tensions and rapport with the listener, and serve to engage them more than the usual classical-influenced affairs. There is a delicate balance between his clear classical influence and his electronic side, and for the most part, the two blend seamlessly.
Though the voice of singer and lyricist Árnor Dan stays mostly in a single mode for a majority of the record, it bears the obvious conviction of an artist trying to get a feeling across. In a nice departure from the usual fare, the longing in his voice sounds like longing, and not just the mere artistic representation of the same. And, in much the same way as Arnalds’ lush but delicate music, Dan uses his instrument in a subtle way, where his lyrical lines are minimal but strategically placed. “A Stutter” is a good example of this, as the lyrics unravel in small chunks, and thus escape the seeming tradition of electronic music placing connected lyric lines between two minutes of music. Hence, there is a flow to the songs that gives them a sense of being more compact.
Perhaps the only downside to making such a subtle record is that it in some way handicaps the album from being great. To be true, no song on here will likely blow you away, make you change your perspective on music, or anything of the transcendent sort. Sometimes, though, your music needs might not call for that. They might just call for a nice little piece that is not your average electronic record—or your average record, period. With For Now I Am Winter, Arnalds—with the help of vocalist Dan—shows his art is an insular kind, one that can live in its own cinematic world.