Mere days after Icelandic musician Jónsi and his band departed for their North American tour to support the album Go, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted. With a scream Eyjafjallajökull (made up of three Icelandic words: Eyja for island, Fjalla for mountain, and Jökull for glacier) bellowed ash and soot darkening the sky and clouding most of Northern Europe.
For Icelanders, environmental extremes dominate their landscape, constantly reminding them that nature is merciless and in control. Due to this reality and the country's isolation, many of Iceland's musicians pair homemade instrumentation with lyrical reference to their surroundings. Jon Thor Birgisson, aka Jónsi, of the band Sigur Rós, reflects this in his work with a pristine splendor, never losing sight of the beauty within the most tenebrous corners of life. Like Bjórk's Vespertine, Jónsi's Go presents a playful and childlike discernment adorned with ambitious themes of natural revolution, desire, and personal reconstruction. Collaborating with his boyfriend, Alex Somers, composer Nico Muhly (Antony and the Johnsons, Grizzly Bear, Bonnie Prince Billy) and percussionist Samuli Kosminen, Jónsi builds a tastefully organic -- yet electronically manipulated -- soundscape perfect for his ethereal vocals to float effortlessly upon.
Songs such as "Go Do" and "Animal Arithmetic" exude joy through percussive acoustic guitars and frantic tempos. Intricate rhythms played on suitcases and a multitude of other household items establish the dynamics of the album, adding breath to songs such as "Boy Lolikoi" and "Around Us." Departing from the melodramatic musings of Sigur Rós, Jónsi utilizes his lower range and sings predominantly in English. Being able to understand the words, however, is unnecessary; the lyrics are unexceptional -- the songs have a transcendent quality language cannot contain.
Though the album stands alone, Jónsi teamed up with 59 Productions to bring animation, film, art installation, and live performance together for a related tour. I had the pleasure of seeing this show mid-April at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Auditorium. The stage design was based on a 177-year-old Parisian taxidermy shop that recently caught fire leaving a mess of charred antiques and melted animal carcasses. It sounds grim, but it was a breathtakingly beautiful setting for what followed: Intrinsically tied to the music, the set slowly engulfed in flames releasing the ghosts of various animal species who then traversed through a series of natural and man-made atrocities.
All of this had the potential to be a horrendously cheesy affair, evoking the current climate crisis and the stereotypical plight of our self-made doom -- which it sort of did -- however, the performance was too genuine to be summed up that way. Besides, that would miss the point. Through all of the music and imagery Jónsi never gets preachy. Go simply states that we have this time to go do what we can, and if we disregard nature and fail to preserve ourselves, the world will still get along, probably better, without us.