Pervasive Longing: Of Monsters and Men’s First Album, and Long-Overdue Return

Our music reviews seek to trace the narratives that weave between songs and albums. Check out our Rhythmic Fiction tag for other stories told through music.

Have you heard the new Of Monsters and Men album? Well… it’s not exactly new. Actually it’s not new at all. My Head is an Animal, their debut album, was released on September 20, 2011. I saw Of Monsters and Men perform live in June of 2013, and they were fantastic. I have been eagerly awaiting news of their second album for nearly two years now, and last week, I finally heard the announcement of their second studio album on the radio: June 9.

Do you know what this means? I began writing this review for kicks last November, and it’s finally relevant! I no longer have to justify reviewing an almost 4-year-old album on the basis of my pining for the sweet melodies of Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir’s voice.

My Head is an Animal is like a glimpse into a fantasy world. Its composition and structure are simple overall, but its lyrics are poignant and unexpected.

“Calling in the Distance”

“Dirty Paws” opens with a soothing yet inquisitive acoustic guitar melody. The folk motifs of the lyrics are immediately apparent as vocalists Nanna and Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson begin weaving a story about an allegorical “beast with four dirty paws” who destroys the forest. The opening track also foreshadows the structure and style of most of the songs to follow, as the steady yet driving rhythms are compounded by the band’s chanting during the interlude.

In “King and Lionheart,” Hilmarsdóttir’s voice takes the lead. Her singing is almost ethereal, like a distant wind chime being carried over a field by an autumn breeze. The methodical guitar strumming and bass drum beats are then built up into a brief chorus, featuring an accordion and trumpet. The second verse of the song is indicative of the off-beat lyrical rhythms frequently used by the band’s two singers, adding an extra layer over the straightforward percussion and rhythm guitars.

“King and Lionheart” reinforces the mythic quality to Of Monsters and Men’s lyrics. We’re not talking about mythic in terms of Thor slaying Hrungnir, but in the folkore themes present throughout these songs. This song is essentially romantic, about two young lovers leaving the world behind to brave the wilderness, protected from the “howling ghosts” and “mountains stacked with fear” by their almost reckless bravery. Even this sentiment is expressed in terms of a near-mythical figure — at least for our 21st-century reckoning — King Richard the Lionheart.

“Creatures Lurk Below the Deck”

The album’s second US single, and the first I had ever heard from the band, “Mountain Sound,” is more upbeat than the previous songs, but also more simplified in composition. The two verses are short and sweet, and a chorus-refrain pairing is repeated between breakdowns of light strumming and heavy, rhythmic drums.

The lyrical tone is adventurous, reminiscent of two young adults escaping their tormented homes, but running headlong into an unknown world, meeting people with far worse experiences than they: “Some hid scars and some hid scratches / Made me wonder about their past”.

The musical and lyrical tone becomes a bit more somber with “Slow and Steady,” which beats gently like a heart, accented by cymbals and harmonizing guitar. More present in this song, too, are the ambient instrumental sounds used as an ambient backdrop to the music.

This song is nostalgic of the people we leave behind in our lives. It is for me, especially, in the way that I left my home to go to college out of state, while most of my friends stayed local. There are some things that you just can’t come back to; whether they change or you do, it’s never the same again. “Yea I move slow and steady / Past the ones that I used to know / And I’m never ready.”

“Two Wolves in the Dark Running in that Wind”

With its accordion backing and chanted refrain, “From Finner” feels like a sailing foot-stomper, and it appears to be just that. The song’s namesake, Finner, guides the singers through rough seas “on his back” and asks them to “keep [their] heads held high” above the waves. Finner is a whale, and he’s taking the storytellers far from home.

The first US single, “Little Talks,” restrains the mythic aspect of Nanna’s and Raggi’s lyrics as the duo trade lines in each verse. “There’s an old voice in my head that’s holding me back / Well tell her that I miss our little talks.” Ragnar’s voice may not have much range, but it is authentic and easy on the ears, and he complements Nanna well.

These verses actually hint at some kind of distress in their relationship, or perhaps even depression, but the overall message is hopeful, and hearkens back to the grander adventure they have embarked on: “Don’t listen to a word I say / The screams all sound the same / ‘Cause though the truth may vary / This ship will carry our bodies safe to shore”. Regardless of where they go, they trust that their ‘ship’ will carry them safely to whatever end.

The adventure story goes off the trail in “Six Weeks,” which features Ragnar as the lead vocalist. Ragnar’s verses take us into the woods, where “A wolf, a wolf and I / We share the same cold meal”. With this song we begin to sense the hardship and isolation (whether physical or emotional) of these young adults’ travels. “Alone, I fight these animals / Alone, until I get home.” The homesickness of this song is driven home by a sequence of instrumental breaks interspersed with a refrain, chorus, the coda, and a repeat coda; “We ride it all out,” and then, “Coming back, I’m coming back.”

The mood softens in “Love Love Love.” The sweet tone of the guitar and accordion is overlaid by Nanna’s lyrics of unrequited love. “And those bright blue eyes / Can only meet mine across the room filled with people that are less important than you.” We don’t know why she can’t love, only that she refuses to, despite a present desire.

At this point, the narrative of My Head is an Animal is less about the wild adventure of a young couple, and more about their pervasive longing for… something. This is essentially a coming-of-age story dressed up in the naive, almost reckless search for purpose, for meaning, or simply for something outside the bounds of the world they grew up in.

“Baby Lion Lost His Teeth”

The lullaby-like quality of Raggi’s verses in “Your Bones” (my personal favorite) belie a subtly dark tone. The adventurous nature of the storytellers is picked back up in this song, but their sacrifices are no longer lost in their bright-eyed vision: “We set fire to our homes / Walking barefoot in the snow / Distant rhythm of the drum / As we drifted towards the storm.” The narrator is now pleading his companions, or perhaps himself, to recognize that where he came from is just as important as where he’s going. “Hold on to what we are / Hold on to your heart.”

An optimistic guitar opens “Sloom,” wherein Raggi and Nanna again trade verses which seem to now fully understand the changes they have gone through on their journey. The storytellers are not necessarily nostalgic, but they are now aware that they cannot fully leave their previous lives behind: “The books that I keep by my bed are full of your stories / That I drew up from a little dream of mine, a little nightmare of yours.”

This theme continues in “Lakehouse,” which builds into a triumphant-sounding chorus with a trumpet and cadence-marching snare rhythm. The sojourners have returned home, at least for a time, and want their former comforts to “chase this fire away”.

“Yellow Light” is again sweet and soft, and the journey seems to have ended. The great ship that had carried the narrators away has now brought them back to land as they search for a safe harbor to make berth in. Two verses fade into a drawn out interlude which feels like a hopeful yet wary ending to a long, hard journey. “Water up to my knees / But sharks are swimming in the sea / Just follow my yellow light / And ignore all those big warning signs.”

It appears that a home has finally been found in “Numb Bears,” which plays like a tavern jig: “Far across the ocean alone / While the numb bears at home / Said I could never get there / But I’m already there.” The storytellers fled far away from their homes in search of adventure, and like most such stories, ended their journeys wiser for the hardships they endured and appreciative of what they left behind.

“Breaking Little Twigs with My Feet, and Underneath is a Road that’s so Steep”

Of Monsters and Men have crafted a beautiful, poetic sound. The songwriting on My Head is an Animal is closer to oral folklore than modern folk rock. Some may claim that the music is repetitive, but the music isn’t really the point; it is a backdrop, merely the set piece for the stories carried by Ragnar’s and Nanna’s voices. And this is not to disparage the harmonic sounds of the six-piece band, but the music helps to carry the emotional weight of the story woven by the stirring lyrics.

The first single from Of Monsters and Men’s upcoming album, “Crystals”, appears to deliver more of the same vivid storytelling and heartrending lyrics. If this is indeed the sound that Of Monsters and Men are sticking with, then I think they’re on the right track.

Note: All lyrics taken from azlyrics.com.

Steve D

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s