Release Date: August 12, 2016
Label: Mercury Classics

I enjoyed the process of struggling with how to describe an album so much in my last review, that I decided to tackle another album a bit beyond my grasp. Here we have an instrumental album by Ólafur Arnalds called Island Songs. I’m sure that Dennis, my composer friend, is already shaking his head: “How is Sam possibly going to tackle this?” The answer is with a healthy dose of abstraction. But don’t worry Dennis, I’m not going to rely only upon clumsy metaphors to capture the impact and sound of the music–thankfully, Arnalds’ project provides ample context to latch onto.

For Island Songs, Arnalds traveled to seven different locations across Iceland in the span of seven weeks. In each location, he collaborated with a different local artist, producing a song and accompanying video. I’ve always felt a special bond with the notion of place. It is a too often overlooked force that influences our thinking, our art, our moods, and daily rhythms. We live our lives ensconced in place and yet, most of the time, it is taken for granted as mere background–the container for our everyday existence. My fascination with islands and the microcosms they produce is perhaps a dead giveaway that I’m on-board with a project like the one that Arnalds has conceived with Island Songs.

The first track, “Árbakkinn” features a poet named Einar Georg Einarsson who lives in the town of Hvammstangi. The piece opens with Einar, a retired teacher of Icelandic and literature (and the father of/lyricist for Icelandinc singer-songwriter Ásgeir), reading what I assume is one of his poems. I didn’t seek out a translation, but the delivery of the words speak for themselves. Introspective and tied to the land. As the poem progresses, Arnalds adds a somber piano line, then a quartet that underscores and builds an ascending, repetitive melody. At its height, it could be said to be soaring (sorry Dennis, sometimes I need my clumsy metaphors). Then, the arrangement descends, decaying until only piano remains.

Without firsthand experience (or at least a passing knowledge) of Iceland, a casual listener might only think: “Well that’s a simple, pretty little melody.” And that would be true enough–the remaining six songs unfurl in similar simplicity. If it’s complexity or excitement you’re wanting, this is not the album for you. Several of the songs were recorded in churches–a harmonium player from Önundarfjörður, a church choir in Selvogur. But other than location, collaborator, and an occasional new instrument, there is not a lot of variety here. Some might fault this, but it all comes back to place. Iceland is a harsh, stark, and consistent landscape. Where the U.S. has an embarrassment of ecosystems–from the desert southwest, to the staggering rainforests of the Alaskan panhandle, the swamps of the southeast, to the rolling farmland of the midwest–Iceland exists across a much narrower band. They have their barrens to ramble over, their seas to go a-sailing, their homes for sleeping, and their churches for singing. The landscapes dictates this. There is a reason that Iceland is said to have the highest number of writers per capita–again, the landscape demands it. Upon visiting Iceland, even amid the tourist boom, one cannot help but be struck with the clarity the place evokes. So yes, many of the pieces on Island Songs fall back on the same tricks, but they are effective ones. I close my eyes, and I see the fjords, waterfalls, and glaciers. I see little houses huddled improbably on the edge of sea, presenting their finest array of colors to enliven the otherwise staid spectrum.

Other reviewers have complained the Island Songs project is all a bit too contrived. The slick website and social media campaign that accompanied it, paired with the carefully choreographed photos could certainly be seen to reek of inauthenticity (i.e. Arnalds looking stoic next to an old 4×4 by some corregated metal buildings under a gray Icelandic sky, Arnalds looking stoic in front of a foggy mountain, etc.). We all know how important it is to be “authentic” in this day and age. And yet, when you strip away the brand-conscious tech-savvy, the aspirations behind the project remain noble and engaging. (Admittedly, traveling around small towns to find collaborators could also rub some people the wrong way–an extension of the localist, artisinal fetishism suffusing hipster culture.) But for me, having been to Iceland–if only for a brief few days–it all rings true.

In the end, it is the music that we are left with–and Island Songs is a beautiful set that fulfills my desire to be transported to the northern climes amidst this summer heat.