Album Reviews

Jóhann Jóhannsson – Englabörn

(4AD) UK release date: 26 November 2007


Jóhann Jóhannsson - EnglabörnCall me a Luddite, but I find myself missing the days when music wasn’t quite as portable as it is now – when Walkmen were bricks, when headphones were little more than angry solenoids, and travelling around with an Ikea shelf-worth of albums was the stuff of a madman’s dreams.

What we’ve lost – we’ve gained much in technological terms, of course – but what we’ve lost is something of the sense of occasion that came from sitting down to listen to an album. Music is now so often something that accompanies other activities – walking, driving and cleaning being some of the more innocuous – that it’s no wonder that there has been a renaissance in instrumental music, in particular soundtracks, which are great if you want a ready-made score to accompany your bad-ass drive down the mean streets of Chelsea to your local Waitrose.

Yet there are still some soundtracks that are simply too good to relegate to the background – the Dust Brothers‘ music for Fight Club and RZA‘s work for Ghost Dog being two of the most striking examples of recent years, collections that worked even if you hadn’t seen the films they’d been scored for.

With Jóhann Jóhannsson’s re-released debut album Englabörn you’re probably never going to be able to see the play that Jóhannsson’s music was written for. Don’t let that put you off – in fact, take it as an incentive, as in Jóhannsson’s own words Englabörn was ‘a violent and horrible play’. Instead of accompanying the (supposed) on-stage horror, his score steers its own path, a melancholic wonder steeped in sadness and regret.

This may make Englabörn sound a little heavy-going, and while it’s not Kasabian, there’s a great deal in here for those listeners that are willing to sit down and simply, well, listen. Perhaps better approached as a single 40 minute work rather than a collection of smaller pieces, Englabörn is scored in the main for strings, piano and tuned percussion, with Jóhannsson content to leave his electronics in the background to shade and hover around the traditional instruments.

Lacking any substantial information on the play itself may seem rather a hindrance, but it can also be exhilarating, freeing the mind from any visual associations that may prime interpretations of the music. Englabörn’s tone is established by its opening theme Odi et Amo, a setting of Catthulus’ famous work that has a computer-generated voice innocently singing the poem’s lines to a simple descending scale that resolves with the poem’s final word.

Jóhannsson has said that he set the computer’s tones against the beauty of the string accompaniment as a deliberate juxtaposition, but any juxtaposition is really between its choirboy-like tones and the careful phrasing of a poem that sets out, in no uncertain terms, the disturbing proximity of our most powerful emotions, ‘hate and love’.

Through the use of subtle leitmotifs these two themes are never far from the listener’s thoughts until the final track, when a grotesque, octaves-lower than the original synth’d voice sings the opening lines of Odi et Amo again in a manner that brings to mind HAL’s demise in 2001, singing back songs from his origins as his memory is systematically destroyed.

It’s this dynamic between the innocent and the damned that ultimately makes Englabörn one of the most haunting and wondrous things that I’ve heard all year. Touching, sad, but never mawkish; please, give it your unfettered attention.


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