wears the trousers magazine

ólöf arnalds: viđ og viđ (2009)
November 19, 2009, 10:38 am
Filed under: album, review | Tags: ,

Ólöf Arnalds
Viđ Og Viđ [reissue] ••••
One Little Indian

When thinking about Icelandic culture, people tend to connect the results of artists’ creative work with the nature that surrounds them and idealise their art as something glacial and untouchable. Snow and ice are invariably associated with a strange purity mixed with slight naïvety, the grandiose geology often metamorphosed into high crescendos, and the long dark nights are always the attributed cause of their music’s melancholic undertones. The ever-active geysers, too, get a look in, typically taken to represent a restless creative energy and melting pot of ideas. Such simplicity of thinking somehow helps us to better understand their otherworldliness and the Icelandic ‘hobby’ of using unusual instruments combined with ancient sounding melodies. This is often followed by implying these assumptions to their small, family-like art scene, where everybody knows everybody, and liken them to elves due to their ‘cute’ language and pale appearance. Ólöf Arnalds, cousin of increasingly popular contemporary classical composer Ólafur Arnalds, defies these preconceptions. Her most noticeable modus operandi is ‘beauty in simplicity’, her songs apparently straightforward, hearty and stripped to the bone.

Released in Iceland in 2007 and soon pronounced ‘best Icelandic album’ by the country’s most read newspaper Morgunblaðið, Viđ Og Viđ is not the work of a newcomer. Its gestation included years spent recording and touring with fellow Icelanders Múm, and collaborations with the likes of Slowblow and Skúli Sverisson, but it was the death of Arnalds’ father which proved to be the catalyst for striking out on her own. Viđ Og Viđ might therefore be seen from two points of view: as processed evidence of many sour and grievous feelings connected with mortality and the departure of a loved one, but also as an escape from sorrow and an effort to free herself from all the weepy emotions. As the whole album is sung in Icelandic, the meanings of these songs are hidden to almost everybody, adding another layer of mystery, a pleasurable mist through which the colour and tone of her voice is not just an additional instrument but a leading hint for the imagination. Arnalds’ fragile, child-like, but absolutely not infantile, soprano is set higher in the shinier songs and slightly lower in the sad ones, but always beautifully clear and delightfully nuanced.

The beauty in simplicity approach is noticeable not just in the minimal arrangements but also in the unfussy melodies. An expert in stringed instruments ranging from your typical guitar and violin to more exotic instruments like the South American charango or the Japanese koto, Arnalds is occasionally disadvantaged by a tendency to sometimes err on being too subtle and too minimal, as very rarely do the songs glide outside of a one voice, one instrument formula. That said, Viđ Og Viđ‘s first half is airy and relaxed as joyful songs like ‘Klara’ evoke an uncommon brightness and the title track, with its patient and leisurely atmosphere, draws us into an eternal family saga. Arnalds’ nearly tweeting voice moves from song to song, but the further we follow her the more serious the mood becomes. ‘Orfeus Og Evridís’ moves into territory that can be likened to Sunday school prayers mixed with Christmas carols, owing to a cyclical melody and a splash of trumpet, but the real shift into tangible sadness comes with the concluding, psalm-like trilogy spearheaded by album highlight, ‘Náttsöngur’, which has by far the album’s richest texture, involving strings, flute and woodwinds that follow Arnalds’ mourning, bringing fresh topical and musical depths to the album.

The cover depiction of two swans with peace and love in their faces, even as their necks are inextricably entangled, can be taken to symbolise Viđ Og Viđ‘s main contrasts, and of how Arnalds, with unwavering calm and patience, brings it all together in marvellous harmony. Her ability to combine happiness with grief and serenity with shimmering birdsong into one compact package is undoubtedly a gift, not just of an ability to compose diverse songs but also to give them some connected meaning. With her second album Ókídóki out next year, all eyes and ears should be on Arnalds to see how she develops that gift. With Viđ Og Viđ sounding as fresh and vital now as it did back in 2007, there’s little room for doubt that something spectacular this way comes.

Tomáš Slaninka
UK release date: 16/11/09; www.myspace.com/olofarnalds


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