In Brief: I hate to put the “sophomore slump” tag on this one when it’s a reasonably enjoyable pop/rock record by normal standards and it would be a promising first album coming from a brand new band. But coming off the high from OMAM’s actual first album, My Head Is an Animal, it’s impossible to avoid making comparisons between the two, and even taking into account that they were going for something darker and more melancholy here, the songs just don’t leap out at me like nearly everything on Animal did.
I should know by now not to let my expectations get out of control when a band has a near-perfect debut album and they’ve got a follow-up coming out. A number of my favorite records were once considered “sophomore slumps”, and they’re generally albums that took a lot of patience to get into, because the artist was keen enough to recognize that they couldn’t mimic the exact same sound that won them their first few hits forever, and found an interesting way to change course. Eventually the patience paid off in those cases. But there’s another kind of “sophomore slump” that perhaps doesn’t gain a band as much notoriety, and it’s generally the type of album that sounds more or less the same on the surface as the sound you first fell in love with a band for, but the material just isn’t as strong. Perhaps you can see a few spots where they’re trying to do something different, but they were either too timid to go for it and really make that new sound stand out from their old one, or else that sound just doesn’t play to their strengths. It may not be seen as a huge failure, but it can definitely dull your interest in a band that once seemed fresh and new and exciting.
Of Monsters and Men, a band I was absolutely over the moon for on their debut My Head Is an Animal, makes those exact mistakes on their follow-up, Beneath the Skin, and it’s amazing how frustrated I was with it upon my first few listens, considering it’s actually not a bad album at all. I’m sure there were those who thought their energetic brand of folk/rock and their cutesy Icelandic accents weren’t exactly reinventing the wheel on their debut, but man, that was one of the sturdiest and most enjoyable sets of songs I’d heard in a while. They just leaped out of the speakers at me, they were fun to sing along to and it sounded like the band had a blast performing them, and when the band did mellow out here and there, there were interesting hues and textures to accentuate the subtler and more sensitive approach. Having the dual vocalist tag team of Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Raggi Þórhallsson, and a lot of members in general certainly helped the band to get my attention, because it gave their songs a communal atmosphere that felt like everyone was bouncing a lot of great ideas off of each other and no single person was domineering over the entire process. That work ethic still seems to have been in place on Skin, but there’s a certain timidity to it, like the band was responding to all the wrong criticisms of their work, reigning in some of their most exuberant tendencies and some of the colorful, folksy instrumentation that accentuated a lot of the songs on Animal. Long story short, it’s more of a rock record, except without the tempos or general aggression to ever reach much of a boiling point beyond “vaguely brooding”. For a band that showed emotions ranging from the deeply melancholy to the unabashedly joyous on their first album, this feels incredibly restrictive.
Lyrically, Skin seems to be a darker effort as well. I’m not opposed to that idea in principle – some of my favorite bands have really important, if somewhat misunderstood, dark horse favorites in their catalogue that sit comfortably right alongside the brighter, poppier, and generally more well-known ones. In OMAM’s case, it’s just that you can only get so much out of the same anthemic pace and instrumentation that doesn’t really do a lot to distinguish one chorus from the next. The entire first half of the record is chock full of songs that I can’t complain about individually, but taken all together, most of them don’t do a whole lot to stand out. Some are fun to sing along to, but some attempt half-baked audience participation moments that feel almost perfunctory. I get that they couldn’t go on throwing tons of “Hey!”s and “Whoa!”s and “La la la!”s into all of their songs forever and ever, but it doesn’t feel like they’ve fully owned the conscious decision to move away from that, either. The second half of the album is where things really start to go off the rails, with some very spacious, quiet movements that don’t really play to the strengths of either vocalist, and a whole lot of confusing sheer repetition with thrilling climax as the volume gets cranked back up again. Then it ends on a semi-upbeat note as if that was all just a bad dream. Nearly everything feels out of place and slightly out of character by that point, but not out of character enough to be noteworthy as some sort of a daring experiment.
If it sounds like I’m bashing the band a lot here, keep in mind that I still consider this to be an above average record by my usual standards. I’d still prefer this to almost anything the Top 40 has to offer these days, so don’t get me wrong. I just think this band is capable of far better than a “merely good” record, and it bugs me to not hear them living up to their potential. If their intent is to dismantle the preconceived notions we might have had of them when they first debuted, then they need to be bolder in doing so the next time around. Otherwise, they could easily about-face back to what they did best a few years ago, and I for one would welcome the course correction with open arms.
The first thing we hear as the album begins is the drums, which is fitting, because percussion seems to play an expanded role on this record, to the point where it stands out to me more than the melody does on a few tracks. At least as far as the album’s lead single goes, it’s backing a strong melody, so that’s a good thing. The drums give the song a cinematic feel, like some sort of an army is about to march into battle, and even if the song’s lyrics don’t quite match that epic-ness, the result is quite inviting to the ears as Nanna boldly takes the lead while the rest of the band falls into formation behind her. I find it curious that this bold start, with perhaps the most memorable melody of any on the album, is paired with one of her most vulnerable lyrics, which uses its fair share of fantastical metaphors to describe vulnerability – having transparent skin, a trembling spine, and and a whole bunch of fears to confess. Strength is found in unity, apparently. I may have no idea what the “crystal eyes” in the chorus refer to, but the line “Let your colors bleed and blend with mine” is one of their most intriguing thus far. I wish the trumpet, keyboards, and other instrumentation you wouldn’t always expect from a folk/rock type of band stood out a little more as the song reached its climax, and I also feel like it deserves an edgier ending than simply coming to a calm half at the last word of the last chorus, but credit where it’s due: This is the one track on this album that genuinely gets me excited.
The second track certainly tries just as hard to bring the drama. Right at the beginning, I’m convinced for a bit that OMAM’s new, more electric approach is working out for them, because I like the way that the dual guitars (one acoustic, one electric) compliment each other and give the verse an eerie sense of depth. Keyboards (or maybe glockenspiel?) and another strong group vocal approach certainly punch up the chorus. That’s needed in a song that goes to darker places than the band has in the past, describing a person slowly succumbing to animal instincts, and falling back on the mantra “Breathe in, breathe out, let the human in” as a way of maintaining control. It’s all good until we hit line two of that chorus – the melody is once again the kind that I can effortlessly grab hold of and sing along to, and the momentum’s been building nicely, only for the band to fumble it by way of repetition: “Breathe in, breathe out… and let it in.” The lyric doesn’t turn a corner there; it’s just stalling for time, and while there’s a metaphor about plants growing “beneath the skin” in the third line while gives us the expected album title drop, it just doesn’t carry the thematic weight it’s clearly intended to. That may sound like an unfair nitpick when the rest of the song is pretty solid, but when everything is leading up to that moment, it just leaves me feeling like their final hours in the studio ran out while they were still scrambling to rewrite the most crucial piece of the song.
The animal instincts bleed over into this song, another of the singles released in advance of the album – and this one’s not as obvious of a choice for a single, to be honest. It’s more of a melancholy breakup song in search of a hook, that doesn’t really find it until the very end. The inherent sadness in the lyrics is reflected well enough in Nanna’s vocals – at times I almost hear echoes of the painful separation Björk spent most of her last album detailing. (I swear I didn’t think of that comparison solely because both singers are Icelandic. And I do mean it as a compliment.) The lyrics are top-notch, describing a voracious, wolf-like appetite that can’t be filled by the mere motions she’s going through in her current relationship. But the instrumentation is way too middle-of-the-road here – we’ve had the same basic tempo for three songs straight now, and it does absolutely nothing to help this one stand out, since the “chorus” has no obvious extra oomph to it to tell us it’s more than just another verse with a different melody, and the frantic crescendo of “I’m drowning, I’m drowning!” that finally arrives at the end of the song really only makes that one part of the song feel special from a performance perspective. They needed to start quieter and more ominously and work their way up to something more fierce and desperate here. (Ironically, they attempt this later in the album and it totally doesn’t work, so perhaps I should be careful what I wish for.)
4. Wolves Without Teeth
Here the animal metaphors start to get a bit confusing. This is nothing new – I was thoroughly baffled by the fairy tale weirdness of “Dirty Paws” on their first album, but that song had such a delightful, fantastical atmosphere to it that I didn’t mind going along with its childlike storytelling. Here, I get the feeling that Nanna and Raggi are trying to communicate something far more dire – wolves without teeth hovering like hummingbirds over their prey, whatever that means. While the two lead singers trade off lead vocals a fair amount throughout this album, on this song it feels like they’re playing distinctive roles, with Raggi as the hunter and Nanna as the hunted. For her part, she once again expresses the vulnerability in a believable manner, but Raggi seems a bit flat and disinterested in his part, like he’s too nice of a guy to play up the creepiness inherent in the words he’s singing. That, along with yet another unimaginative, mid-tempo rhythm, makes the song lumber along unassumingly, too down-tempo to be as catchy as it could be, and too up-tempo to be at all scary. As much fun as OMAM can be to listen to, I think one of their greatest failings may be an inability to recognize when a song needs to be taken a little farther off the beaten path, even if it sacrifices its viability as a single or its immediate sing-along nature. I can remember the lyrics and sing them back quite easily on this song’s chorus, but I don’t feel moved or even terribly intrigued by them.
Raggi gets a lead vocal all to himself here, with Nanna and the rest of the gang joining in for one of the album’s better choruses, but it’s really the first time he’s had the spotlight on this record so far. When the approach doesn’t call for as much darkness or drama, I actually like the calmer tone of his voice – he’s one of those foreign singers who enunciates the English words just fine, but you can still hear a bit of his accent, and it gives the song character, like you’re being told a tale by a wise old sailor who has seen some crazy things in this big wide world and now he wants you to go see them for yourself. I wasn’t too keen on this song’s uneven rhythm at first – it’s 4/4, but every eighth measure of the verses is skipped, presumably to fit the one longer line, one shorter line tradeoff in the lyrics without leaving an obvious hole before he comes around to the next couplet. It’s grown on me, but I find myself wishing for something that truly had a different rhythm instead (remember that this point on the last album is where we got the swaying sea shanty “From Finner”, which had way more life to it than just about anything on this record). I feel like this is the first track on the album where the darkness turns a corner into something light – as heavy-hearted as Raggi’s travels across the sea have left him, the chorus makes the fantastic promise, “From the rain comes a river running wild/That will create an empire for you/An empire for two.” Shoot, it’s almost romantic. Throw in some “Whoa-oh”s at the end of that chorus, and you have a fairly obvious, but still effective hook that puts this otherwise lopsided song on my woefully short list of favorites from this album.
6. Slow Life
Is this the album’s first “slow song”? The difference between “slow”, “mid-tempo”, and “fast” on this album is almost imperceptible, so it’s hard to say, but right away I’m digging the brooding melody, the more jagged and mournful electric guitar chords, and the thick, dark bass line – all elements I wouldn’t have expected from OMAM based on their last disk. I’m not sure it quite locks the band into as memorable of a groove as it seems like they were going for, but it’s a glimpse of something a little farther afield, which again, is the kind of thing that seems to happen in much smaller increments for these guys. I really have no idea what Nanna’s going on about here. Sailing off into darkness teeth and claws, little bits of metaphors that have kind of been used up at this point, and we’re only halfway through the album, which isn’t a good sign. My opinion on this song seems to violently jerk back and forth. One minute I like it for not being what I expect, and in a good way. The next minute, I wish they’d tighten it up a bit performance-wise. Then the big climax comes in, with the trumpet blaring and the group going for a big sing-along finish. Then I realize it’s just a lot of half-hearted “Whoa”s, and it’s not even that fun to sing along to; it’s just repetitive. We don’t need audience participation here, guys. We need you to just play the hell out of the song, and it seems like you backed off from really doing that right when it would have counted the most.
Before Of Monsters and Men was a full-fledged band, Nanna was a solo singer cutting some demos with the help of a few friends. If you’re ever curious what she might have sounded like as a solo artist, give this song a listen… and you’ll promptly wish you had never asked. It is boring, boring, BORING to the nth degree, and I’m really surprised to find myself saying that, since while Nanna may not be the world’s most versatile vocalist, she’s normally a very expressive and downright adorable one, and here she just sounds resigned and disinterested. I feel just about the same, considering most of the band is sitting this one out and she’s singing along to the extremely dull strumming of an acoustic guitar, maybe with some light keyboards backing her up here and there. At least when she did this sort of thing in “Love Love Love” and “Sloom” on the last record, most of the rest of the band had something to do. Those songs had a spring to their step. This one obviously isn’t meant to, considering its extremely dark lyrics about a woman wanting to tear off parts of her face and body just to make her forget the various sensations that remind her of a failed relationship. The right melody and atmosphere could have sent shivers up and down my spine here. Mildly forlorn and mostly harmless is where the song ends up instead. At roughly 4:30, it’s not even the longest track on the album, but good GOD, does it ever feel like it is.
8. Black Water
In case it hasn’t already hit home that the band is obsessed with the literary device of sailing on dark, stormy seas, here’s a song that is about exactly that and nothing else. Truth be told, if they hadn’t already repeated the theme elsewhere, I wouldn’t mind it here, since Raggi’s verse at least gives some weight to that darkness, as his words are quite nearly whispered against a low-key acoustic melody that sounds like a downcast reflection of “Dirty Paws”. It’s one of the better ways that the band has repeated itself, is what I guess I’m saying. Nanna’s comparatively bright chorus melody seems to come out of nowhere, but since she’s despairing about being “Swallowed by a vicious, vengeful sea”, at least the lyrics fit the mood. The song’s a bit schizophrenic due to the very different approaches taken by the two vocalists, but give it some time and it does come to an enjoyable climax, closer to what I might have expected from OMAM in past years, but a little chillier and perhaps a little wiser.
9. Thousand Eyes
I was alluding to this song earlier when I spoke of the band going for more of a dark, brooding texture that matched the lyrics and that threw their usual pop sensibilities to the wind. You pretty much have to turn up the volume to hear it at the beginning, since there’s so little going on and the vocals, despite both Nanna and Raggi singing together, are practically being muttered underneath their breath. “Skeletal” is the first word that comes to mind when I try to describe their approach here. It certainly brings the creepiness that’s been lacking elsewhere, but the lyrics are so minimal and impressionistic that I’m left to wonder what the heck they mean when they sing “I lie awake and watch it all, it feels like thousand eyes”. Spiders have like a thousand eyes, don’t they? That’d be a fascinating animal-type metaphor to work into such a dreary song – like a spider slowly sneaking up on its prey, immobilized in its web. Unfortunately I have to fill in a lot of blanks here, since the band’s normally wordy approach is stripped bare in favor of a slow-burning climax that gradually makes me regret turning the volume up so high at the beginning of the song. They accomplish this by hammering the same chord, over and over and over, until the song grows from something vaguely menacing into the sort of broken record nightmares are made of. Then one final, eerily threatening final verse of “I am the storm, so wait” (which, to their credit, is a nice-lead in to the next song) and it falls silent. I’ll say this much – they’re really good at building a sense of dread during that long, crescendo. But jeez guys, play a different chord from time to time.
10. I of the Storm
As in “Crystals”, drums are the defining element of this song, and once again, they feel like a bit of a military march. But the mood here is a world away from that song – it’s more of a funeral-like cadence. I suppose that’s appropriate for a song that might lay more fears and doubts bare than anything else on this already bleak album. There’s a sweetness to Nanna’s vocal melody despite the intense sadness of her lyrics – the kind that makes you want to put an arm around her and assure her that it’s OK, you will genuinely miss her after she dies the premature and sudden and tragic death that she’s terrified lies in wait just around the corner. For a song about being overwhelmed by those waves of anxiety and depression, its chorus is maddeningly pedestrian, tossing the drum cadence aside in favor of the generic “everyone hits every quarter note” that I’ve despised ever since Coldplay treated it like it was a new thing over a decade ago. It takes a song that could be commendable for its fragility and its inventive use of empty space, and renders it quite nearly anemic. Ultimately I don’t hate it – it was clearly meant to be one of the cornerstone tracks on the album, and I think it could have even worked well as a finale, if only they hadn’t been so half-hearted about the “maybe it’ll be salvageable as a single?” approach on the chorus.
11. We Sink
The album’s actual finale is, sadly, not a Chvrches cover. (Not that such a cover would have made a lick of sense here… but at least it would have been interesting.) Somewhat bafflingly after the overwhelmingly downbeat back half of this album so far, it’s actually sort of up-tempo. Not nearly enough to hold a candle to any of the better tracks in the first half (which themselves don’t hold a candle to much of anything on the first album), but at least there’s some gusto to it. There’s a slight spark of hope in this one – a feeling that despite sinking in that cold, dark sea, this documentation of despair will somehow work its way to the surface as a sort of sonar ping, a warning or perhaps even a rescue beacon to anyone who cares to come looking for these poor, lost souls. (Compare and contrast with “Yellow Light”, the downbeat finale to a mostly upbeat set of songs on My Head Is an Animal… and just about the only track on that album I didn’t really care for.) There’s some attempt at an emotional build up as they work their way to the end of this otherwise unremarkable mid-tempo song, but they cut away from it too soon and I don’t feel much of a sense of resolution when it ends on tranquil keyboards. It’s amazing how, for all of their attempts to build up to big finishes on this album, none of them have jumped out at me like all of their old songs that I inadvertently keep thinking back to, except for that one that did jump out at me a few tracks ago, but not for good reasons.
For the extra-curious, there’s an extended edition of Beneath the Skin that features four bonus tracks. Two are studio cuts that didn’t make the track listing, which I think was a good call for the dull, misplaced attempt at mimicking Sigur Rós-style ambiance on “Backyard”, but which is a bit of a head-scratcher for “Winter Sound”, easily the most up-tempo thing to come from this album’s sessions, and exactly the kind of thing it could have used as a break from the mid-tempo doldrums in its midsection. (Perhaps they thought it was too similar in its title to “Mountain Sound”? Nothing else about it strikes me as similar.) Two remixes follow, of “Black Water” and “I of the Storm”. The first was done by Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear, and he gives it a sort of chillwave, ambient electronica approach that works surprisingly well. I might actually like it better than the original. The second was the brainchild of Alex Somers (a.k.a the boyfriend of Jónsi from Sigur Rós… working those Icelandic connections, I guess). And it’s beyond useless. It’s mostly static crackling and vague snippets of vocals trying to make it through, with only a highly distorted chorus vocal there to identify it as the same song. (My guess is he probably listened to Von one too many times.)
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Wolves Without Teeth $.75
Slow Life $.75
Black Water $1
Thousand Eyes $0
I of the Storm $.75
We Sink $.50
Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir: Lead vocals, acoustic guitar, piano
Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson: Lead vocals, acoustic guitar, melodica, glockenspiel
Brynjar Leifsson: Guitars, melodica, tambourine, backing vocals
Kristján Páll Kristjánsson: Bass, backing vocals
Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson: Drums, percussion, melodica, glockenspiel, accordion, keyboard, piano, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: