Quite what it is in the water in Iceland is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it is generations of sagas and isolation that make the population of 320,000 particularly predisposed to seeking solace and worship in music. Whatever it is, the contribution of the small north Atlantic island to music over the past decade or so has been disproportionately large. And with an ever growing roster of artists such as Ólöf Arnalds, the collective contribution seems to be slowing not one bit.
Arnalds has been working primarily as a vocalist with collective M�m, whose experimental soundscapes are not too far removed from what we have come to expect from the home of Bjork and Sigur Rós. Her solo debut, released in Iceland in 2007 and finally getting a release in the UK now, is quite a different kettle of cod.
From the opening bars of the sweetly plucked guitar on Englar og Darar, Við Og Við is a simple study of the folk-inspired singer-songwriter craft. There is a temptation to liken Arnalds to compatriot Emiliana Torrini, and while there are similarities, particularly in the vocals, Arnalds reliance on instrument and voice rather than samples and the mixing desk makes Joanna Newsom and Vashti Bunyan more telling comparisons.
Given that this reviewers’ Icelandic stretches now to “og”, extrapolated from a passing knowledge of Greek myth and the title of the harp-led orchestral telling of Orfeus og Evridis, the subject matter of the songs remains elusive. Imagined English words swim in and out of hearing, and one wonders if Arnalds is really singing about salmon and paraffin – almost certainly not. Although, given the pastoral similarities to Bunyan and Newsom, perhaps one really can hear lyrics about lax (salmon).
Part of the joy though is resisting the temptation to look to translations, and simply enjoy Arnalds’ chiming, expressive, voice. On the title track Arnalds ends up chanting “La la la”, but rather than a device to fill in space, the line sounds like exultation too great to be put into mere words in any language. Sometimes words are not enough, and sometimes language is unimportant to understanding.
The slower ballads such as Vittu At M�r and Nattsongur leave the listener’s attention to drift through the second half of the album – perhaps the style becomes too familiar and an understanding of the words would help. All is not lost though, and the divine Moldin, with a sublime string arrangement and amazingly dextrous vocals, is a highlight of the album.
For an album’s worth of songs from which one doesn’t understand to engage and thrill as much as Við Og Við is no mean feat. This is pastoral folk of the highest standard, in which the songs sound both ancient and brand new at once – a real treat that bodes well for the imminent release of a second solo album.