Sunday, February 17, 2013

Albums of 2012 # 2: Of Monsters And Men – My Head Is An Animal

Okay, so this one was a major surprise for me. Something of a bolt from the blue. One that came all the way from Iceland in the form of an album that became something close to my “happy place” in 2012.

Of Monsters And Men is not a name I was familiar with at the start of 2012. By the end of the year though, the band had become practically impossible to ignore, and music from My Head Is An Animal, the band’s inspired debut album, was everywhere – on the charts, on mainstream and independent radio, on music television and its various cyber offshoots, and just about anywhere else you cared to look.
I heard it in shopping malls, at award ceremonies, and I’ve even heard it used as interlude music during breaks in play at international cricket. I lost count of the number of times I heard a snippet from the album underscoring or subliminally sound-tracking some form of advert or “feelgood” news brief over the past six months or so.

Usually this would be a bad thing, of course. A very bad thing. Having the music you love being used in this way. In the way it all but destroyed ‘Blue Monday’ for a generation that once adored it. In the way any number of Beatles tracks have slowly but steadily lost their lustre over the decades (let it go! - Ed). A bad thing for the music, and often something that results in a vastly reduced shelf life for the band or artist that created it.

Yet, curiously, Of Monsters And Men have – thus far at least – managed to turn this theory on its head. Just getting these snippets and extracts out there has worked heavily in the band’s favour. Album sales have soared, particularly in the US, where the exceptional debut single ‘Little Talks’ led the way by going Top 20 within weeks of its release. Commercially, at least, familiarity hasn’t yet bred the level of contempt normally synonymous with over exposure. So far.

Now the trick for Of Monsters And Men (and label Universal) will be to ensure that level of exposure – subliminal or otherwise – doesn’t lead to negative type-casting and a permanent loss of long term credibility.

(Pleasingly, I’ve read a few reviews that have compared Of Monsters And Men’s music to that of Arcade Fire. Rather more worryingly, I’ve also read a few pieces where the words “Mumford & Sons” have been offered. It would seem there is a very fine line indeed).

There is just something so very uplifting about My Head’s offbeat mix of indie pop and folk. The harmonies, the big pop choruses that propel the music to a series of peaks, the sense of almost childlike wonder in the singing voices of dual vocalists Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Raggi Pórhallsson. I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what it is, but it’s big, it’s bouncy, and it’s a helluva lot of fun. A happy place, even.

There is no great sense to be made from a set of lyrics that focus on the surreal, the mythical, and the fantastical. But that doesn’t really matter, Of Monsters And Men make even the most trivial and frivolous feel epic. It’s more about the shape and form than it is about the minutiae of detail.

For what it’s worth, there’s a strong maritime and nautical theme running right across the album, with everything from songs about life on the high seas to charming little ditties about insects and pond life. We get the odd song about matters of the heart to bring us back down to earth occasionally, but mostly Hilmarsdóttir and Pórhallsson’s narrative is all about otherworldly adventure stories and all the wonderful imagery that comes with that.

Anyway, it seems pointless to go on. I loved this. I played it often. It made me happy.

It’s such a beautifully crafted album it seems a little harsh to single out specific tracks as highlights … but: ‘Dirty Paws’ (clip below), ‘Mountain Sound’, ‘Little Talks’, ‘Six Weeks’, and ‘Your Bones’.

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