Critical Voices: Jónsi, Go

April 8, 2010

Sigur Ros’s Jónsi Þór Birgisson, a fairy-like, grandeur-loving vocalist with a keen sense of drama, teamed up with his boyfriend Alex last year to release an ambient album called Riceboy Sleeps. It was a genre experiment that favored washed-out noise, and though it had its moments, it turned off a lot of Sigur Ros fans who preferred the band’s penchant for build-ups toward moments of immediate, stunning beauty. Thankfully, Jónsi’s solo record, Go, has those moments in droves, and with his expanded use of the English language, it makes for ultimately one of the most life-affirming records I’ve ever heard.

Lead single “Boy Lillikoi” captures the album’s sonic aesthetic. Jónsi’s layered vocals have a lulling effect, perfectly suited to the calmly-plucked acoustic guitar and faint horn section behind him. About 90 seconds in, a hyperactive rhythm section takes over as he implores us to, “Use your eyes, the world goes aflutter by.” It’s some of the most wide-eyed romanticism we’ve ever heard from Jónsi, who typically sings in a gibberish romantic language called Hopelandic.

Throughout the album’s vibrant first half, the surprisingly kinetic rhythm section plays just as much a role as the guitars, flutes, and other flourishes that constitute Go’s fantasy land. Opener “Go Do” is a stunning example of that mix, an unbelievably happy tune that sounds a lot like Sigur Ros’s riveting “Gobbledigook.” With Jónsi sounding relaxed and convinced of his own optimism as he sings, “We should always know that we can do everything,” it’s easy to be convinced, too.

“Animal Arithmetic” follows, continuing with unbridled optimism. “Everyday, everywhere, people are so alive,” Jónsi sings. “Tornado” slows things down a bit, its strings more sweeping than the quick bursts in the other tracks. “I wonder if I’m allowed just ever to be,” he asks as the song draws to a close. On “Around Us,” he extends his themes to the circle of life, with Jónsi singing, “We all want to grow with the seeds we will sow/We all want to go with the breeze we will blow/We all want to know when we’re all meant to go.”

Even on the album’s lesser tracks—“Sinking Friendships” and “Hengilas”—the focus remains on life’s big questions and Jónsi’s big musical arrangements. That may disappoint fans of Sigur Ros, who are used to a bit more build and nuance from Jónsi. For the vast majority of listeners, though, Go will be a real treat, a reminder of the beauty we can only find by living and embracing the present.

Voice’s Choices: “Go Do,” “Boy Lillikoi”

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