Monday, June 15, 2015

album review: 'beneath the skin' by of monsters and men

I didn't expect to get as many requests to cover this album as I have.

And on some level, that's exciting, because it meant that Icelandic band Of Monsters And Men had somehow managed to make an impact in popular culture beyond just 'Little Talks', the song that somehow managed to chart just high enough to lodge a place on the pop charts in 2013, two years after it was released. And I'll admit, it was off of that song that I dug into their pretty damn solid debut album My Head Is An Animal. Now to put things in perspective, the reason 'Little Talks' did as well as it did was because Of Monsters And Men had fortuitous timing - the folk boom was kicking into gear, and they had the benefit of a horns section, potent melodic grooves, and interweaving male and female vocals to stand out from the crowd and especially from Mumford & Sons. Of course, the huge benefit that Of Monsters And Men also had was a wind-swept haunted swell to the production, some noisier electric guitars that never compromised the texture, and pretty damn solid songwriting that wasn't afraid to get weird in terms of a more feral brand of poetry. Or to put it another way, there's a reason why 'Little Talks' ran away as my favourite hit song of 2013 - because it's goddamn amazing.

So why haven't I been jumping all over their sophomore release? Well, part of it was a certain amount of trepidation: I wasn't initially wild about their opening singles, and early buzz wasn't great, especially emphasizing that the album reportedly had more filler. This was a concern for me, because if I were to level one big complaint with their debut, it'd be that their sound can have a certain uniformity to it if the songwriting or melodies don't stand out. It's not a bad sound by any stretch of the mind, but it can get a little repetitive. 

But look, I still like this band, so I dug into their sophomore album Beneath The Skin - was it better than expected?

Well, on some level, it was what I expected - Of Monsters And Men mostly stuck to what worked for them and delivered a solid record at first glance. But if you dig a little deeper, you'll quickly start to realize that the album, while still being good, doesn't quite have the same impact as My Head Is An Animal. The band themselves have said this is them opting for more subtlety, reeling things back and focusing more on their humanity instead of the grandiose wildness of their debut. And while I can definitely see that intention, it doesn't quite execute as well as they might think, leading to a record that is good, but not quite their best.

So to start, if you're familiar with Of Monsters And Men, you'll find their sound hasn't changed that much. Thick acoustic grooves and deep, rollicking percussion driving the tracks, the melodies either being driven by washed out guitar lines or the horns, which add the background texture but are never mixed so low to be lost in the mix. If you're going to notice a shift in sound from their debut, it'll come in the production, specifically the usage of reverb: there was always a wild, rickety, almost ramshackle emptiness that characterized My Head Is An Animal that had more rough-edged texture. Beneath The Skin has some of that, but thanks to the production work of Rich Costey, the guitars have more thickness and chugging swell and the mix is a little more dense, less reminiscent of a wild empty expanse and more of a eerie cavern - which does do a fair bit to favour the guitars, but not quite as well for the horns, which don't quite have the same explosive colour. In other words, it does feel a little more 'conventional', which has sparked comparisons to The xx, especially considering that Of Monsters And Men have eased back more of the pounding, cacophonous power that drove their debut in favour of more restraint. To me, this is a bit of a mixed blessing: yes, it does give the album more of a sense of intimacy, but it takes away one of the band's most distinctive elements and a lot of their power. Now that's not saying there aren't great melodies on this album: the creeping washed out tones of 'Human', the instantly memorable chorus of 'Crystals', the interplay between the fluttering background tones and subtle keyboards on the chorus of 'Empire', the darker snarl of 'Slow Life' especially with that bass line, the shimmering swell of 'I Of The Storm' accented by the glistening pianos, and especially when they make a reappearance on 'We Sink', probably one of my favourite songs on the album. But there isn't the same sense of intensity and climax, and there are several moments where the band seems to be holding back from really cutting loose, which was a disappointment, especially on killer crescendos like 'Thousand Eyes' that really could have exploded.

And this extends to the vocals as well. One thing's for sure, you can definitely tell that female lead singer Nanna Bryndis Hillmarsdottir has been listening to a fair share of the most recent Bjork album Vulnicura, especially on more of the delicate, quieter songs, as their vocal inflection isn't far removed from each other. And to some extent, that makes sense - Vulnicura was a powerful and intimate record. The problem is that neither her or her male counterpart have quite the emotive range to pull that off, and the added reverb accenting their vocals didn't help. What's a little more exasperating is that the band doesn't make more usage of the male/female dichotomy to drive more interesting songwriting - the dual roles played on 'Little Talks' were some of the most thrilling parts of that song, and it strikes me as a wasted opportunity.

But then again, that wouldn't quite fall in line with the lyrics and themes of this album, which have a very potent individual focus. The band have described Beneath The Skin as a more intimately human album, tapping deeper into vulnerability and intimacy that's more uncomfortable to express - in other words, very Bjork. And there's definitely an arc to this record: a record that begins in loss and fear in confronting an unfriendly world that would seek to change them, relationships for the wrong reasons, fears that might prove completely groundless - in other words, being chased by wolves without teeth. And I do like the broad thematic arc of this record in embracing that vulnerability, those fearful elements held beneath the skin and buried deep, that the band dives through the storm to fight... only to accept them and show no fear in placing them in daylight. There's still uncertainty on how the world might respond and accept them, especially a world characterized by empty riches on 'Crystallized' or the neon throne on 'Human' or, in the bluntest lyric on this record on 'I Of The Storm': 'Are you really going to love me when I'm gone / I fear you won't / I fear you don't'.

But this is arguably where we run into the biggest problem with this album, and it comes down to the writing. The intentions of the band was to create a more intimate, more vulnerable and personal record, and you can see this in their themes, delivery and presentation - but in terms of the actual language used in the lyrics, it doesn't really connect in the same way. And it's because Of Monsters And Men have a very distinctive style of writing - layered metaphors and symbolism, lyrics loaded with animalistic imagery that evoke bigger, more abstract scenes off nature... which can feel like a odd fit for a record delving into personal demons. The writing style is better suited for epic adventure than internal drama, and what it means is that connecting to those smaller emotions that demand subtlety slightly misses the mark. And what's frustrating is that this could have worked if the writing was a tad more visceral or hard-hitting, a shade more graphic to show the real intensity of these fears... but then again, none of the instrumentation goes there either, so I'm not entirely surprised.

So let me make this clear, I do like Beneath The Skin by Of Monsters And Men - compositionally, the band is playing in a comfortable wheelhouse and they've still got a knack for writing solid songs. But from the aborted climaxes to the lack of lyrical intensity in its human connection, I feel a little distant from this record as well. I can respect them pulling back to tell a more personal story and using their brand of abstract writing to do so, but it doesn't quite connect as strongly as I'd like. I'm feeling a light 7/10 and a recommendation to fans of the band, but I'm hesitant to go beyond that. If My Head Is An Animal didn't win you over, this will only connect if you're looking for a sound a little more reserved. As for me, I think I prefer the monsters.

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