When you put out a debut album as charming and understated as Seabear‘s brilliantly homespun debut, The Ghost That Carried Us Away, the follow-up is inevitably plagued by nervousness and rife with sophomore-slump potential. But Iceland’s Seabear have topped themselves handily with their stunning (really, stunning) follow-up, We Built A Fire.
On their first outing, it was fairly obvious that Seabear was the brainchild of one man, Sindri M�r Sigf�sson (who’s been called the Icelandic Beck, perplexingly), and his whispered presence permeated everything on the album, so much so that it would have been easy to mistake him for a one-man band. But On We Built A Fire the band’s six instrumentalists are allowed to shine – to glimmer, even – creating a wholly organic and breathtaking work of synergistic songcraft.
If its music is any indication, Iceland is a far-off place that’s still alive with magic and glacial faeries, where the rising sun still symbolises something mystical and awe-inspiring. Seabear do share some sonic similarities with their compatriots Sigur R�s. But where Sigur R�s deal in otherworldly etherealisms and made-up language (beautiful and unattainable as it is), Seabear take a markedly more down-to-earth approach to their achingly fragile pop tunes.
We Built A Fire is a decidedly more full and lush sounding record than its predecessor. As such, Seabear may have lost a bit of their homemade arts-and-crafts appeal, but the full-band sound suits them well. Strings lilt, drums lope at lightly galloping mid-tempos, and the odd electric guitar (a gently plucked Telecaster by the sound of it) makes it into the arrangement from time to time.
Lionface Boy opens the album with a subtly driving bass beat, reminiscent of Matt Pond PA‘s Halloween. Each instrument is played with soft fragility, and Sigf�sson whispers his baritone so quietly that it’s hard to imagine him not singing from a near-sleep lull in front of a quietly warming fireplace. Fire Dies Down opens with stratospheric harp arpeggios and otherworldly saw bowing. “One day this body will break. One day these hands will shake,” Sigf�sson sings over vibrato strings.
The country two-step Wooden Teeth is a bit of an oddball, reminiscent of Iron & Wine, circa Our Endless Numbered Days. But even in its upbeat jaunt, Sigf�sson’s voice is front and centre in its quietly introspective lull. “We got married while you were asleep,” he sings. “Carved our names out on your wooden teeth.” Still, Seabear don’t burn the barn; they just catch fireflies in the hayloft.
In the same way, Softship bounds a bit too loudly, carried not by a ghost, but by a Gin Blossoms ’90s alternative-radio guitar tone. (It should be mentioned that this is, by no means, a bad thing.) And by the time the album closer Wolfboy comes around, its upbeat drive – which would have seemed so out of place and nigh on impossible on The Ghost That Carried Us Away – comes across as a marked step in the evolution of a gifted songwriter surrounded by the best possible company.
We Built A Fire is an unassuming, quietly smouldering flash of brilliance to carry us from the deadened depths of whitest winter into the slanted and enchanted light of a spring well spent.