My Head Is an Animal
The cold North Atlantic island nation of Iceland isn't exactly known as a musical hotbed. The list of Icelandic acts that anyone outside the country has likely heard of begins with eclectic singer/songwriter Björk and ends with ambient post-rock group Sigur Rós. (And for many, it's even shorter than that.) Enter Of Monsters and Men, and the list is now 33% longer.
This group of six was recruited by singer/guitarist Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir in 2009. Fellow guitarist Ragnar "Raggi" Þórhallsson shares singing duties with her, imbuing alternative folk rock with an otherworldly acoustic vibe that quickly brings to mind nu-folk standouts Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers. Hilmarsdóttir's voice, especially, has a plaintive, haunting quality to it, one that also echoes British singer Ellie Goulding's.
The group won Iceland's annual battle of the bands competition, Músíktilraunir, in 2010, and released My Head Is an Animal domestically in 2011. Half a world away, radio exposure in Seattle and Philadelphia then began to build a buzz for the group Stateside. By the time Of Monsters and Men's debut was released internationally in April 2012, all that prerelease publicity had paved the way to a No. 6 debut—making this formerly unknown new group the coolest musical export in Icelandic history.
Much of My Head Is an Animal has a whimsical, magical, mythological feel to it. And its 13 songs tend to narrate dramatic stories with broad brushstrokes, allowing listeners to fill in the details with their imagination.
On "King and Lionheart," for example, we hear about what sounds like an invasion: "Taking over this town, they should worry/ … We won't run." Listening fairly literally, though, it seems the town's inhabitants are forced to flee, led by their brave king. Despite their exile and supernatural terror, the song's narrator insists, "Howling ghosts, they reappear/In mountains that are stacked with fear/But you're a king, and I'm a lionheart/ … And as the world comes to an end, I'll be here to hold your hand." It's a bleak yet simultaneously hopeful outlook that also infuses "Dirty Paws," the telling of a strange war between birds and bees. (And, no, there doesn't seem to be any sexual subtext.)
Themes of exile and aloneness turn up on "Mountain Sound," "Slow and Steady," "Six Weeks," "Lakehouse" and "Numb Bears," among others. And often the sense of isolation is contrasted with joy and happiness. On "From Finner," for instance, we hear, "We are far from home, but we are so happy."
Parallel to that are repeated motifs about finding home … or longing for it. On "Lakehouse," these lyrics start things off: "Oh I miss the comfort of this house/ … The floor underneath our feet whispers out/'Come on in, come on in, where it all begins.'" Then "Six Weeks" adds, "A wolf and I/We share the same cold meal/ … Alone I fight these animals/Alone until I get home/Coming back, I'm coming back/ … She follows me into the woods/Takes me home."
"Sloom" references the need to "forgive and forget," as well as voicing someone's longing "to be a better man." The band's hit single "Little Talks" tells of a lover trying to stave off the crippling grief that's consumed his girl. He croons, "Hold my hand, I'll walk with you, my dear." Separated from her, he promises that they'll be reunited eventually, saying, "Just let me go, we'll meet again soon."
The little problem with "Little Talks"? Well, our hero's dead and is "haunting" his beloved since she doesn't "like walking around this old and empty house." And similarly oblique references to death and the afterlife turn up on "Your Bones."
"Yellow Light" is one of the few places on the album where conflict between the song's protagonists and their monstrous pursuers comes to a seemingly ominous end: "Somewhere deep in the dark a howling beast hears us talk/ … Running into the night the earth is shaking and I see a light/The light is blinding my eyes as the soft walls eat us alive."
"Love Love Love" is a breakup song that hints at a couple sharing at least one passionate night together before all the ill will set in.
Hilmarsdóttir recently told contactmusic.com, "Iceland can be a very isolated country, and that translates to the music."
Indeed, while Of Monsters and Men sounds a bit like other popular bands in the globally resurgent folk movement these days, the subject matter of the group's songs sounds like some strange mythological story you've never heard before. Fortunately, most of the time these monsters and men coexist as they try to make the best of being exiles longing for home. And only rarely does their mythology move into serious spiritual space.