We live in the time of the folk zeitgeist, when every college student worth their frocket can get behind a little Old Crow Medicine Show, and moms across America download “Little Lion Man” on their iPods (on their yoga playlist, obviously). It may not be Arlo Guthrie at Woodstock, but it’s not Katy Perry at Warped Tour, and I think Western society deserves some positive affirmation for that. At least a nice thank-you note on your good stationery.
Of Monsters and Men emerged as the winners of an Icelandic battle of the bands in 2010, which makes them the Nordic answer to Ruben Studdard, as far as I can tell. They have amassed a bushel of buzz in recent months, with lead single “Little Talks” and a South By Southwest turn getting people excited about the newest indie folk-pop act. With the U.S. release of My Head is an Animal, the band won’t disappoint anyone who came in riding the word of mouth.
Because I’m an idiot, I’ve been jamming out to “Little Talks” on the radio for about a month, thinking it was a Decemberists track. I mean, I’m not going to lie about it, guys. Honesty is the best policy. “Little Talks” is just as fine an example of folk-pop as anything everyone’s favorite bibliophile troubadours could crank out. It has become a “song of the moment” much in the same way that Mumford & Sons captured such an opportunity in 2010. It’s delightful in every way, a modern sea shanty with my favorite back-forth/male-female dialogue since the Human League. Forget Elton and Kiki, forget Gotye and Kimbra. Do they have such propulsive horns, such heart-thumping beats? More than anything, “Little Talks” proves that Of Monsters and Men aren’t just a flannel-clad shells — they’ve got killer pop instincts.
Harmony glues this act together (much like the Head and the Heart — the resemblance is uncanny), and it’s due to a beautiful cocktail of Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir’s and Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson’s vocals. The opener “Dirty Paws” puts this convergence front and center, and the way the pair’s voices mingle sounds like a beautiful, sun-dappled snapshot found in the attic. The first song also provides a good template for Of Monsters and Men’s slow burn method of building tension in all their songs. They’ll remind any listener of Arcade Fire in the best ways.
“King and Lionheart” shows that, once again, the band is all about the big buildup, which in clumsier hands would be tedious, but works here because they know how to isolate the magic in the quiet moments before the big explosions. Plus, Nanna sounds like Björk if Björk didn’t have a personality disorder.
Just kidding. Björk is awesome.
Perhaps a key spiritual cousin to Of Monsters and Men exists in Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, whose “Home” peeks through the edges of this album’s “Mountain Sound.” As someone who’s lived in Virginia and knows people from Iceland, I can tell you that this song sounds exactly like those two things put together. Such a new band has no business in having such strong melodic sensibilities, but here we are.
“Finner” gets the plinking pianos and tribal beat together to further model harmony of a different sort, while “Six Weeks” would be a good fit on any Fleet Foxes-centric playlist. “Your Bones” is the song I want to die to — dark and triumphant, with trumpets to spare. The journey comes to a reluctant close with “Yellow Light,” a melancholy coda to “Little Talks.” It reflects a flipside, a shadow whisper of the sweeping lead single as far as tone is concerned, but keeps a similar song structure. I don’t think I’ve ever heard another track that was a more fitting final chapter to an album.
There isn’t a single dud on My Head is an Animal. My hope is that this album becomes a classic, because I’m really looking forward to dusting off my old mp3s for my kids (or however that’s going to work) and showing them a perfectly crafted record from 2012.
(1) “Dirty Paws”
(2) “King and Lionheart”
(3) “Mountain Sound”
(6) “Little Talks”
(9) “Your Bones”
(12) “Yellow Light”