Whenever anyone asks what they think of Icelandic music, the answer will always stray towards the obvious, concluding that it’s all very serious and atmospheric and a little weird. There are a few well-known examples that back up their theory: Björk single-handedly re-inventing not just her own sound but the way we listen to and enjoy music, as well as the intense, foreboding soundscapes that Sigur Rós conjure up.
However, there is a lot more to Iceland than that, as Ólöf Arnalds goes to show. Anyone who has seen her live performances will know how casual, light-hearted and, sometimes, off-the-cuff her performances can be. Following on from the critical success of Við Og Við and Innundir Skinni, as well as a mini-album of covers, which has the rather self-explanatory title of Ólöf Sings, she returns with Sudden Elevation.
Unlike her previous two albums, Sudden Elevation is easily her most accessible for one key reason: it’s pretty much all sung in English. Whilst Innundir Skinni had a few songs that dabbled in the language, most of her material to date has seen her stay true to her roots. Even though there hardly any traces of her native Icelandic tongue are in any of these 12 songs, the strengths of Arnalds’ voice are still on fine display, and it provides an interesting contrast to a musical backdrop that is mostly hushed.
If you’ve heard Arnalds’ work before, you’ll find little here that’s new (language differences aside) to look out for. It’s the same gentle aesthetic that’s worked well for her in the past. She might not be too daring in her arrangements but the quality of the songwriting, for the most part, means she just about gets away with it. From the understated elegance of the guitar melodies in Onwards And Upwards to the good-natured whismy of Treat Her Kindly, there’s plenty to enjoy. The mood is perky throughout, with subtle percussion acting as a surprisingly powerful driving force behind German Fields whilst the catchy Numbers And Names makes good use of backing vocals contributed by sister Klara (fellow sister Dagný also makes an appearance during Return Again).
Its only major flaw is that, whilst being very pleasing on the ear, all of the songs are lightweight and they run the risk of blending into one big, albeit cuddly, mush. These are tracks that demand your attention to appreciate them properly. It’s all too easy to blank out short-but-sweet ditties like The Joke and A Little Grim – both are fine to listen to as standalones but in the context of an LP they get lost a little too easily.
Sudden Elevation is yet another solid display of Arnalds’ talents and is arguably the LP that most newcomers to the singer-songwriter should arrive at first. There are no signs that she’ll drastically alter her sound and, to some extent, that is pretty comforting. Describing someone as reliable can sometimes be misconstrued as a bad thing and often suggests that an artist is lacking ideas to the point where they become unlistenable. In this instance, it’s entirely complimentary. The world would be a less happy place without albums like this.