Taming the beast of pop
The conventions of popular music possess a unique magnetism. They tend to slip their long and greasy tentacles into everything at some point. But much like a talented sushi chef with a filet of fugu, the right hands can turn a cruel beast into a delicious meal. Jón Þór Birgisson, better known as Jónsi, is the latest chef to try his hand at dicing up this unruly squid. The result is a dish fit to feed a king; it bears the hallmarks of Jónsi’s time in underground and experimental music communities, as well as his love of pop melodies.
A far cry from his most recent work, the disappointing Dark Morph II, Shiver is a magnum opus of left-field sound design and modern pop. The record kicks off with a triptych of pop songs, “Exhale,” “Shiver” and “Cannibal.” Each of these tracks possesses an effortless calm, while maintaining a glistening sheen of candy coating. As much as Jónsi is known for his time with the impossibly odd Sigur Ros, or for recording whale sounds with Dark Morph, it’s clear he has a respect for big pop production. Each of these three songs, especially “Cannibal” with it’s mammoth refrain of “You know it’s only out of love” would fit perfectly on the second stage at Coachella. Luckily, if well produced pop isn’t what one had in mind, “Wildeye” will set them straight.
“Wildeye” bursts onto the record like the Juggernaut. A clatter of bubblegum bass and warped electronics (sounding straight off of a Charli XCX or Sophie album) greets listeners before Jónsi wails in a distorted voice, “You fill my mouth full of gravel. You scrape me up with a shovel.” The song eventually cools down, if only for a moment, introducing harp and a more straightforward use of synthesizers. But “Wildeye” makes it clear that Jónsi isn’t quite ready to hand in his membership card for the weirdo society just yet. “Kórall,” another one of the more rambunctious tracks on the record, isn’t as focused on playing with structures as “Wildeye” is, but is a great deal harsher, bordering on power electronics in certain sections. Yet through all this, it feels as though Jónsi is challenging himself to make beauty out of ugly sounds. He succeeds admirably.
The crown jewel of the record is easily “Salt Licorice,” which features pop-icon Robyn. As one might expect of a Robyn feature, the track is dancey but it feels wrong. Things are just ever so slightly off at every moment, and then the chorus hits. Glitched as all hell, the chunky robotic beats practically jump out of people’s earphones. Somehow, Robyn glides effortlessly over this as if she’s listening to an entirely different song than the rest. Despite all these disparate elements, it comes together gorgeously, leaving all the weirdos with yet another Scandanavian pop gem.
It’s not easy to make a balanced dish of the pop monster. Too much focus on the main element and the dish becomes cloyingly sweet, inoffensive and banal. Too little and people risk losing the thread all together, burying the flavor of the monster beneath elements that would be better in other dishes. Fortunately, the way Jónsi handles this beast on Shiver is one of the most admirable attempts at genre bending this year. One could hardly ask for a more satisfying dish.