Shiver is the second solo album in ten years from Jónsi Birgisson, the frontman of the beloved Icelandic dream-rock group Sigur Rós. The apparent demise of Sigur Rós is a sad one, seemingly disbanding in the early 2010s, reforming for a couple more lacklustre studio albums and disappearing once more into the ether. Fans the world over were therefore understandably elated when Jónsi announced Go back in 2010, and their excitement was totally justified with an album brimming with unmatched optimism and relentless joy. Fast forward ten years to 2020, and Shiver presents us with an understandably more world-weary artist who is desperately trying to remind us of his uplifting harmonic palette and soaring melodies (sometimes to a forced degree), but the overall aesthetic couldn't be more of a contrast.
Where Go featured almost exclusively acoustic orchestral, string and percussion arrangements (some by composer Nico Muhly), Shiver is almost entirely electronic, produced by A. G. Cook. Jónsi's musical fingerprint is still undeniable (some moments would feel right at home on one of Sigur Rós's earlier releases), but overall, this is a departure in the extreme, sometimes jarringly so. For as big a fan as I am, it feels a little bit like, if this was always going to be the natural progression of Jónsi's music, we missed 2-3 solo albums in the interim to get us to this point. Musically, it's akin to skipping to the last fifteen minutes of Shyamalan's The Village after only watching the first five; the endpoint is still unexpected, but without context the surprise overshadows the integrity of the whole. Or, to keep it in Iceland, it's like Björk going straight from Post to Medulla. It's not without great moments, but I was sometimes too busy being blindsided to notice them. Shiver is an album likely to ingratiate itself over time.
The first two tracks, 'Exhale' and 'Shiver,' hint at what a long-time listener is likely to expect from this album. Lush piano voicings, Jónsi's iconic multilayered falsetto, liberal use of vocoder and smirk-inducingly-predictable-but-no-less-delicious harmonic progressions (the guy loves a submediant-tonic-subdominant emotion-fest) abound. But what's this? A pop ballad drum beat? The surprises start filtering their way in, and it takes some getting used to.
When we get to 'Wildeye,' things start getting interesting. It's a glitchy, dirty, frantic, sometimes brutal (but somehow still beautiful) trip. It's a little bit late-Björk, a little bit Porter Robinson, a little bit Top 40 teen doof (hello ducking), a little bit The Presets, and of course a little bit Jónsi. A reprieve comes in the form of 'Sumarið sem aldrei kom,' a welcome return to the Jónsi of old, with Everybody's Favourite Sigur Rós Chords, tasty vocoder for days, ethereal soundscapes and heavy distortion. Then 'Kórall' comes along, sounding more like something on The Postal Service's reject pile than something that acts as a cohesive link to anything else on this album.
The most divisive track on this album will be 'Salt Licorice,' feat. Robyn. I happen to think it's a totally endearing banger, but I can hear Sigur-diehards laughing with derision at the faux-EDM sensibilities; distorted dance beats, glitchy chime samples, frenetic, pulsing synths and catchy pop hooks. It's the track to which I can see Jónsi sitting in the recording studio banging his head with pride; I can't help but smile when I listen to it. It is absolutely, unequivocally, the most un-Jónsi thing he's ever done. It's actually a little bit trash and I love it.
However, my absolute favourite track on the album is 'Swill.' It's exactly what I wanted from Shiver. The driving back-beat is the ultimate head-thrash inducer which, when coupled with the octave pitch-bent synth shrieks, produces the album's most musically satisfying song. Harmonically, it's quintessential Jónsi, but it's also a beautiful amalgamation and summary of his musical output to date. Unfortunately though, 'Swill' is also the source of Shiver's biggest disappointment, because the rest of the tracks aren't nearly as good.
Shiver is an exciting promise of Jónsi's future musical releases. Despite some fumbled moments, his willingness to experiment with electronica to such an unbridled degree could be a foreshadowing of a groundbreaking third album in the future, if he chooses to infuse the medium with more of the simple, honest beauty of his previous work. My only hope is that we don't have to wait another ten years for it.
Shiver was released on October 2 and is now available through most usual music retailers.