Of Monsters and Men – Fever Dream: You think you know me, but do you really?

Artist: Of Monsters and Men
Album: Fever Dream
Year: 2019
Grade: B-

In Brief: While this isn’t the total synthpop makeover some reviews might have had OMAM fans dreading, the band’s decided move away from the spirited folk/rock of their early years isn’t a particularly exciting one. Their music is still quite melodic, but in several places on this album it’s quite languid, employing a lot of the same sonic tricks over and over, and surprisingly under-utilizing their charismatic lead singer Nanna on far too many tracks. This is a marginally enjoyable stumble in the discography of a band desperate to carve out a new identity for itself.


Sometimes a fanboy who falls in love with a band very early on just has to face facts: The first album was a fluke, and they’re never going to sound like that or be as exciting as that again. When I first heard Of Monsters and Men in the late spring of 2013, I simply could not get enough of the band’s full-bodied sound, fantastical lyrics, and adorable Icelandic accents. It felt like a group of Nordic seafarers had sailed to my shore specifically to regale me with stories of adventure and discovery. I didn’t necessarily understand or relate to some of their more esoteric lyrics, but I didn’t need to, because there was so much enthusiasm and instrumental variety from track-to-track on their debut My Head Is an Animal that it felt like the band was bursting at the seams with creative ideas that would sustain them for years to come. Then came the much-anticipated follow-up in the summer of 2015, Beneath the Skin, and they tried to go a little darker and more introspective, and… eh. It was alright. Some of that same adventurous spark was there, but it just didn’t have the same energy. To be fair to the band, they broke out at a rather unique time in the history of indie rock, when folk revival bands were all the rage, and that trend pretty quickly fell off in the years following their debut. So they were going to have to either stick to their guns and hope they could ride out the changing trends with a diminishing fanbase, or try something new and hope it turned some new heads. I still found a lot of tracks on Beneath the Skin to be memorable, but it didn’t excite me or take me on a journey like their first album did. Consequently, the four-year wait for their third album barely even registered. I had moved on to other things. I still pulled out My Head Is an Animal from time to time and still found it to be a total blast from start to finish. But I had no idea what to expect from the band when they announced a third album, and I figured it was probably best to keep my expectations low.

Fever Dream arrived in the summer of 2019 (funny how it’s always either summer, or hot enough that it might as well be, whenever I get to hear new music from these guys), and its release was heralded by a rather promising single, “Alligator”, which turned out to be entirely misleading. If Beneath the Skin was more of brooding rock record, “Alligator” seemed to promise more of a fun, riff-heavy one – not necessarily a sound I would have expected the band to pull off convincingly, but this was a strong enough track that I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. The shift towards more of an electric guitar-driven sound for that track was in line with an admission by the band’s lead singer Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir that she was bored of writing songs on the acoustic guitar. I found this to be a bit of a copout – after all, the acoustic might have been the backbone for a lot of their early stuff, but I’d easily say that the rhythm section, the exuberant group vocals, and other bits of auxiliary instrumentation like the trumpet and accordion were what really made that record soar. And when I finally got the chance to delve into Fever Dream and found that this first single was quickly followed by a number of downbeat, synth and piano driven tracks with a fair amount of drum programming, I was more than a bit frustrated. It seems like damn near every rock band these days has to declare that they’re “experimenting” with their sound, when what they really mean is they’re just leaning more on programming and scaling back their big hooks and rhythms in favor of a more relaxed or ambient vibe. Some bands pull this off better than expected, but it really isn’t a sound that draws OMAM’s strengths out into the open.

Basically what you’ve got on this record is a strong but underused lead vocalist in Nanna, who sounds equally confident singing big anthems or small ballads, overtaken more often than not by male co-lead singer Raggi Þórhallsson for some reason, both of them doing their best to sound engaging to a set of tracks that could largely be performed by hitting play on a set of laptops and letting the rest of the band take a lunch break. Perhaps that’s not entirely fair – I mean, I’m sure all five band members participated in the creative process. But I have to scratch my head and ask why a band in which all five of members are capable of playing multiple instruments would set most of them aside in favor of this more subdued approach, and why the few tracks that dare to be more up-tempo and have stronger drums, guitars, or chorus hooks are doled out in such a miserly fashion. I feel like I spend most of this record waiting for climaxes to arrive that never come, and even when more of an upbeat attitude resurfaces near the end, it feels like it’s too little, too late.

The songwriting on this album is… fine. To be honest, I haven’t really engaged with the lyrics much, due to the trance-like mood of several of these tracks making it rather easy to check out. The bands certainly puts their best foot forward on “Alligator” and the follow-up single “Wild Roses”, which both bring some nice visuals to mind that compliment the mood they’re going for. On a lot of other tracks, I hear bits of nature imagery or hints of personal heartache, but not a whole lot sticks. About the only thing that really surprises me here is that the band has the audacity to name-check their first album deep within a moody album cut that sounds nothing like that record, while later declaring “Fuck the way we were” in an even moodier one. I still find the record enjoyable enough despite those not-quite-convincing little hiccups, I guess. But man, there are some serious growing pains evident on Fever Dream. It’s like they have something to prove to folks like me who want them to still sound like their old stuff, but they’re afraid to directly come out and say what’s really on their minds, lest they lose our attention entirely.

I can’t imagine OMAM picking up a ton of new fans with this one, nor do I think this half-hearted stylistic shift bodes all that well for their future. But at this point, I’m probably better off not even hazarding a guess at what they might try next. There are more convincing ways to completely blow up your sound and start over from scratch, for sure. But at least if they were gonna do that, they still left us with a few interesting hooks and sonic glitches and singable melodies along the way.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. Alligator
While it deserves to be on a much better album, rather than functioning as a misleading teaser for this album, I can’t fault the lead single for its surroundings. It’s easily the most fun thing Of Monsters and Men have done since the Animal days, and the big, stomping rock sound is a surprise when compared to both of their past albums. There’s certainly darker and heavier stuff on Beneath the Skin, but this might be their loudest and proudest rock song yet. I love how Nanna sings with confidence, her vocals slightly distorted in place to fit with the buzzing sound of the bass and rhythm guitar. Her lyrics are appropriately surreal, given the bizarre dream from which the album gets its name: “I see colour raining down/Feral feeling, swaying sound.” The chorus begs to be woken up from her fever dream, and yet there’s a certain sense of exhilaration from realizing she’s lost control of herself. That was probably how the band felt, discarding pretty much all their past notions of what they were supposed to sound like and trying something new. And back when this was the only track I had heard and I was imaging more of the album would be as bold and stereo-rattling as this song, it was certainly a fever dream I didn’t want to wake up from.
Grade: A

2. Ahay
Don’t ask me about the title. The only translation Wiktionary has to offer is from a language of the central Philippines known as Hiligaynon, in which it is an expression of annoyance or frustration. Somehow I don’t think that was this Icelandic band’s intent. I’m certainly frustrated, though, as we suddenly switch from riff-heavy rock to chilled-out keyboards and drum loops, as if I were listening to the album on shuffle and it had suddenly jumped to a deep cut near the end. Actually, as experiments go, this one has a nice enough groove to it – I was initially intrigued once I got over the whiplash from how poorly “Alligator” led into it. then I started to realize this was one Raggi song too many on an album mostly full of slow to mid-tempo Raggi songs, and I kind of started to tune it out. His vocals are too low in the mix during the verse. When Nanna comes in to help with the chorus, and the song reveals itself to be about two people talking circles around each other but revealing that they really don’t know each other that well at all, it starts to hold my interest a bit more. The chorus stating that “You think you know me, but do you really?” sounded a bit petulant to me at first, as if they were waving my preconceived assumptions about the band in my face while thwarting expectations, but I really think this is more of a song about a relationship circling the drain than a band trying to tell their fans we don’t know who they really are. It’s an interestingly textured song, once the murky electric guitars and drums come in, even if it’s not doing all that much to grab the listener’s attention. As the odd slower cut on a more upbeat album, I’d likely appreciate it more, but as track 2, it doesn’t quite work.
Grade: B-

3. Róróró
OK, now you guys are just trolling me, making up words that look like they might be Icelandic, but that in fact are just gibberish. That’s supposed to be Sigur Rós‘s job. (At least according to Google, it appears to be a made-up word. the only hits I get are for this song. How do you even pronounce that name? Do you have to accent every syllable equally?) While this one still falls squarely into well-manicured, keyboard-driven pop territory, I can say that I appreciate how the live drums slowly build up energy and gradually overtake the programming here. It’s not quite as arresting as something like “Slow and Steady” from their debut, but it’ll do. It’s another strong vocal performance for Nanna, who wrings a fair amount of emotion out of melodic phrases that are, unfortunately, otherwise quite repetitive in terms of the chord progression, during the verses and the chorus. The “Oh, what a shame!” hook really jumps out at me, but when those same peaks and valleys are repeated four times, it loses a bit of its luster, making me wonder if a slight change to the final iteration might help that chorus to stick the landing a bit better. The lyrics make it sound like she’s trying to open up her arms and embrace a life full of change and the promise of newness, but then she shies away at the last second, realizing she isn’t ready. this one could be a real highlight if there was an instrumental solo or drum breakdown or something less predictable going on in its final third, but let’s be honest, this isn’t a band that is really known for vamping or extended hamming. It’s still a good song that needs to do a little more to stand out from its languid surroundings.
Grade: B

4. Waiting for the Snow
Atmospheric ballads have truly never been OMAM’s strength. Climactic ballads work fine for them, but when they show restraint throughout, the results are generally quite boring. Even “Yellow Light”, the final track from Animal, was the only song on that record to not really do a whole lot for me. “Lungs” was a real slog to get through, a downright boring blemish on Beneath the Skin. This one is… okay. it’s mostly Nanna’s vocals, some very still and somber piano chords, and bit of backmasking or electronic tweaking to give it some ambiance. True to the title (which is the first time we get one that actually appears in the song’s lyrics), it’s about waiting for something very gentle and graceful to happen – so if you’re expecting a big eruption of sound, you’re definitely in the wrong place. I can appreciate the vulnerability in her voice and the way that she begs, “So what can you offer me?” But after that gets repeated enough times, I find myself hoping that the song will turn a corner… and it just sort of ends. I wouldn’t necessarily mind this as an elliptical closing thought (it would make a hell of a lot more sense than the actual ending of this album), but as the first ballad on an album that has spend the last two tracks in rather middle-of-the-road indie pop territory, it comes at a time when I was already starting to worry that the album was prematurely running out of gas. This isn’t a good sign at all.
Grade: C+

5. Vulture, Vulture
Aside from the electronic hum at the beginning of the song and at a few points in the background, this song reminds me of something more brooding that might have appeared on Beneath the Skin, except that it’s got a little more swing in its step. Despite how many of these songs seem to start off with a programmed rhythm track, this one’s a little snappier than some of the others, and I like how the live drums once again overtake it as the song builds up a bit more energy. You end up thinking it’s going to be another one of the many mid-tempo entries fronted by Raggi, and for the most part it is, but the chorus has a bit more oomph to it, which I appreciate. this is another track named for a carnivorous animal who never shows up in the actual lyrics, but I can at least understand the reason behind the title this time, since Raggi is singing about feeling like he’s marooned on a desert island and having some sort of a beast slowly picking away at his ego, his sense of self-worth. We’re at nowhere near the energy level of “Alligator”, but the band’s performance still reasonably upbeat compared to most of the album, and I hate to be the one to tell you that this is about the highest level of energy you can expect from here on out.
Grade: B

6. Wild Roses
The second single was wisely chosen – it’s one of Nanna’s strongest vocal performances on the album, and it segues quite effectively from a ballad-like verse based around the piano into a more upbeat chorus. Thematically, I guess it’s paired well with “Vulture” since both songs have a similar structure and emotional arc to them, though this one’s less interested in catchy rhythms or riffs, and it’s more of a straight-ahead anthem of heartbreak and resilience. Nanna’s lyrics go back and forth between intriguingly surreal (“A serpent on a bed of leaves in the month of May”) and borderline emo (“I think I wrote my own pain”), but I think the gist of it is that she’s feeling directionless into a relationship, and needs something more then empty romantic gestures (such as the offering of the titular roses) to keep her going. This didn’t grab my attention as instantaneously as “Alligator” did, but it’s still easily the second best thing on the album. For all of Fever Dream‘s faults, they sure have been good at picking the singles thus far.
Grade: A-

7. Stuck in Gravity
Ready for more Raggi? He pretty much dominates the next four songs – not that Nanna’s voice can’t be heard, but she’s definitely relegated to a supporting player on most of these. I don’t mean to give the guy such a hard time, because he’s not a bad singer by any means – there’s just a unique edge to his voice that makes it much better suited for the spirited brand of folk/rock the band started out with (see “Your Bones” for an excellent example) than… whatever this hodgepodge is. I’m guessing this was another song that was composed on piano, and that the band added multiple layers of synth and vocal effects to in the studio just to help it stand out more. At four and a half minutes, it drags a bit, though I can at least see how the trance-like mood of it fits the lyrics, where he seems to be singing from an isolated place, feeling like he’s very far from any real experience of love. It’s emo as hell, much as the music might try to disguise it as something magical. And when it tries to come to a crescendo for the last minute or two, that’s where the band makes the downright baffling decision to auto-tune Raggi’s voice. Certain voices sound good with the Autotune applied – we’re almost at the point where we can’t imagine Bon Iver without it, for example. But applying this effect to Raggi’s voice just makes it sound abrasive and unnerving. It smacks of desperation to grab the audience’s attention with an experiment that may be surprising, but that certainly isn’t fulfilling. To add insult to injury, the lyric he repeats throughout this section is “Staring out the window/Looking at the rainfall/Hoping for starlight/Head is still an animal.” If he’s trying to reassure us that they’re still the same band that delivered that fantastic debut album seven years ago by name-dropping it, then they’ve picked the absolute worst context in which to do it. Sure, I’m willing to believe there’s some organic brain manner left in that head somewhere, but this song makes it sound like it’s fighting to break free from all the cyborg machinery surrounding it.
Grade: C

8. Sleepwalker
Absolutely the last thing I want to hear when the Autotuned nightmare of the previous track end is yet another piano ballad starting up with Raggi’s voice front and center. This time around, it’s not so much bad as it is boring. There’s more of a defined rhythm and structure here than there was on “Waiting for the Snow”, but aside from the marginally interesting lyrics in the chorus (where Nanna thankfully takes over) about a lucid dream-like experience sleepwalking under indigo lights somewhere in Mexico, I’m not really engaging much with this one. When the opening track promised us dreams in vivid color, I was certainly expecting the music to have a lot more life to it than this. This is definitely one of those tracks where I’m waiting for something bigger or less predictable to happen, and it never does.
Grade: C

9. Wars
At this point, the band is failing to even give their songs interesting or distinctive titles. “Sleepwalking” literally started off with the lyric “I start a war”, and now we have another track about wars, except it really isn’t; it’s more relationship drama. I’ll give the band some credit for a much perkier bass line and a danceable hook that I honestly wouldn’t have expected from them – it still seems a bit sluggish in places, but I can appreciate the vague Fleetwod Mac-isms of it. I could take or leave the lyrics, which find Raggi vacillating back and forth between loving someone when it’s convenient (on the weekends, as it says in the chorus, or basically whenever he’s in the same town as her) and carelessly forgetting about her. I guess the “war” going on is between his conflicted feelings of affection and indifference toward this person. But it’s not painting him in the best light, and besides, we’ve already had this subject thoroughly explored by John Mayer.
Grade: B+

10. Under a Dome
I’ve got a lot of mixed feelings about this one. It stands out for many reasons – most notably for being the band’s only use of profanity in a recorded song that I’m aware of (yeah, this is the “Fuck the way we were” song I alluded to earlier). But I don’t want that to be overshadowed by what’s actually a reasonably interesting use of programmed effects – the drums sound more industrial here, giving the song a unique sound like it’s being churned in a cement mixer, despite the sensitive piano ballad nature of the other instruments and the vocals. The “dome” referred to in the title might actually be the sky, with Nanna and Raggi off in some isolated northern location watching the Northern Lights, wondering about the future of their band and deciding, “You know what? We don’t have to stick to the way we used to do things if we’re not that excited about it.” The boldness of that decision is something I can sort of admire here, and I think this song would actually be more of a standout if it weren’t coming on the heels of an album that was packed with programming-heavy ballad after ballad. Closing out an otherwise more visceral album with a track like this and then “Waiting for the Snow” as the desolate finale might have made both songs more powerful than the sum of their parts. Unfortunately this is another case where an interesting premise doesn’t lead to a satisfying conclusion, as the band once again takes us down the rabbit hole of electronically distorted Raggi vocals. I can appreciate how freeing it must have felt to throw out the rulebook and record something as unorthodox as this, knowing it would startle their fans. But that excitement doesn’t quite translate to the actual listening experience, and thus this track gets a bit tedious before its four and a half minutes are up.
Grade: C+

11. Soothsayer
And now, along comes the finale that makes no sense as a finale. Not that I’m gonna complain about actually getting something upbeat to go out on, but it’s sort of like how I felt about “We Sink” at the end of Beneath the Skin. Decent track, but not a closer (and in that case, only forced to serve as one because the international edition suffered from some meddling with the track listing – there’s no such excuse this time around). I’m 100% on board with the groove this one lays down as the live drums kick in and set the song in motion over a bed of synths. Nanna’s back in front of the mic for most of it, sharing it with Raggi on the chorus, and for once the band sounds happy about their future prospects, acknowledging that their time together is not “wasted love” and acknowledging “You’ve become a tempo that my heart knows.” The question “Who am I in your temple?” in the bridge and outro suggests an almost religious devotion between either lovers, bandmates, or a songwriter and her muse. But once again, we’ve got a distinct lack of climax here, as the song barely has any time to let us know it’s reaching its conclusion before it unceremoniously winds down, and sputters out on a few final synth notes that they didn’t even bother to properly fade out. It sounds like this track was designed to segue into another one, and thus it would have worked better somewhere in the middle of the album. The pacing of Fever Dream is all over the place, and especially after so many ballads, this might be the album’s most baffling example of that.
Grade: B

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Alligator $1.75
Ahay $.75
Róróró $1
Waiting for the Snow $.50
Vulture, Vulture $1
Wild Roses $1.50
Stuck in Gravity $0
Sleepwalker $.25
Wars $1.25
Under a Dome $.50
Soothsayer $1
TOTAL: $9.50

BAND MEMBERS:
Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir: Lead vocals, guitars, piano, synths
Ragnar Þórhallsson: Lead vocals, guitars, melodica, glockenspiel, synths
Brynjar Leifsson: Lead guitar, melodica, tambourine, synths, backing vocals
Kristján Páll Kristjánsson: Bass, egg shaker, synths, backing vocals
Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson: Drums, percussion, melodica, glockenspiel, accordion, keyboard, piano, acoustic guitar, backing vocals

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:

MORE USEFUL LINKS:
http://www.ofmonstersandmen.com
https://www.facebook.com/ofmonstersandmen

3 thoughts on “Of Monsters and Men – Fever Dream: You think you know me, but do you really?

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