It’s as if Ólöf Arnalds’ voice was made to accompany fairytales. It has a magical quality that brings to mind a childlike sense of discovery, an impression particularly affecting for those who hear the texture but not the meaning of her lyrics, which are mostly sung in her native Icelandic.
Innundir Skinni – it translates as ‘under the skin’ – is Arnalds’ second album, following her 2007 release, Við og Við. Her debut was an intimate collection of folk songs accompanied by acoustic guitar. In contrast, the first track on Innundir Skinni packs in a choir, electric guitar, violins and drums into little more than two minutes of music. The album continues with a variety of different arrangements and instruments. Arnalds has not repeated Við og Við but has experimented widely, collaborating with a number of musicians and singing three songs in English.
There are moments of great beauty on the album, notably Surrender, a collaboration with that other great Icelandic songstress, Björk. Here Arnalds sings a steady, tender vow to her newborn son while Björk‘s voice soars ethereally in the air. The album’s title track is also a pleasure, with its soft backing vocals complementing one of Arnalds’ strongest melodies to date. Elsewhere, the naval-inspired Jonathon shows that Arnalds is perfectly adept at constructing lyrics in English.
However, a difficult comparison with the first album is inevitable, not least because of the critical success enjoyed by Við og Við, which was judged record of the year by Iceland’s biggest newspaper. The additional instruments and percussion on Innundir Skinni are potentially off-putting to purists who enjoyed the intimacy of Arnalds’ debut. There is also less continuity. The first album came together in a period of a few months while the second was made in bursts over a longer period, interspersed with the input of contributors. This shows in the final product. Arnalds has said “the album as a whole ended up being in charge of me rather than me being in charge of it”. She’s right.
In a sense, the difference between the two albums owes less to a creative decision than to contingency. She has said Við og Við was very personal, with the lyrics written about members of her family. Arnalds was working through the loss of her father, who died in 2004. It’s connected with sorrow, and how family changes when a member leaves.
Now, Arnalds has become a mother and is dealing with a more varied range of ideas. It is no longer about maintaining the wholeness of her family after a death, but about the hopes and dreams of birth. There are practical considerations too. The first album was composed primarily on guitar: chord structure came first, and lyrics and melodies came after. Arnalds says motherhood means she has less time to sit around and play the guitar. Now, the melodies come first and she later finds the arrangements to fit them.
Several of the songs on Innundir Skinni are as strong as any Arnalds has written, and that’s reason enough to applaud it. But there is something lacking – the direct, personal appeal of Arnalds’ debut. Innundir Skinni is still a worthy achievement, it’s emotional but not melodramatic; understated yet grand. But it is a mixture rather than a whole and lacks the cohesion of Arnalds’ inspiring first album.