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.
A few months ago, I retrospectively plotted the narrative of Of Monsters and Men’s first album, My Head is an Animal, in the hopes that binging on their music would sate my appetite for more until their second album was released.
Thankfully, their second album has arrived, and I now have tickets to see Of Monsters and Men live (again) in September.
“Making waves in pitch black sand”
At first listen, Beneath the Skin sounds more somber than its predecessor. The composition similarly relies on simple melodies over steady rhythms, but Of Monsters and Men also seem to take more chances in their instrumentals now, using more dynamic fillers and rhythms to accent their songs.
“Crystals” opens with foot-stomping drums and the familiar voice of Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, though seemingly more weighted than the airy lyrics of their debut album. The song begins with a hopeless tumble through a sky of vibrant colors, but ends up in a more hopeful outlook: “Raw and charcoal colored thighs / Feel so cold and my skin feels so paper-thin … But I’m okay in see-through skin / I forgive what is within.”
The heavy pulse of “Crystals” continues in “Human”, which begins with echoing guitar and ambient vocals, but quickly picks up with a steady bass drum. The layered background music seems to veil each song, and in “Human”, gives the feel of water dripping steadily into a still pool. That may, in fact, be the biggest thematic difference between Beneath the Skin and its predecessor; whereas the imagery in Animal was carried by internal struggle, this album seems to focus more on the narrators’ surroundings as a backdrop to their emotional turmoil. “Human” appears to be a mantra to soothe: “Breathe in breathe out / Let the human in”.
“You’re feeding on my energy, letting go of it”
The tone of the album quickly dips in “Hunger”, in which the narrator (Nanna) is “drowning” is her own despair over a lost love: “My beating heart wanted more / But I’ll keep it in and keep you out”. However, this is not an overwhelming despair. It is a moment of weakness which is recognized as a minor setback: “Let me go ’cause you are just a shade / Of what I was, not what I’ll be / But in this quiet company / I forget sometimes just how to breathe”.
There is a maturity to this album, not only in the way it is structured, but also in its themes of overcoming hardship. The burning desire for another life we saw with My Head is an Animal seems to have grown into a scarred but wiser version of itself. Musically, the instrumentals and vocals are blended much more fluidly, and the dual vocals of Nanna and Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson are in perfect sync with each other, seeming to meld into a single layered harmony. The final refrain in “Hunger” displays this melding of their voices as the instrumentals soar to a climax behind the vocalists’ cry for help.
The rhythm becomes buoyant yet again in “Wolves Without Teeth”. Here we can see a common thread beginning to form between songs. I think the eponymous wolves without teeth are a metaphor for lust or love: “So lift up my body and lose all control / I’m giving you all, I’m giving you all”, followed in the refrain by: “You’re feeding on my energy / Letting go of it, she wants in”, and finally rounded out in the chorus: “And I run from wolves / Tearing into me without teeth”.
Might these be the same wolves identified in “Hunger”? – “I will be the wolf and when you’re starving, you’ll need it too”. This idea of losing control, too, is a recurring theme from “Human”, which suggests that when that control is lost, the narrators (in this case, both Nanna and Raggi) become beasts: “If I lose control I feed the beast within”.
I think it’s appropriate to interpret this trio of songs as a running story of the fear of losing oneself in love, to even drowning in it and trying to find a way out, only to fall back in. But is the narrator falling back into the same love, or a new one? This appears to be a push-and-pull between two people who are not quite sure whether to back off or jump headlong into their “hunger”.
“The wind blows loudest when you’ve got your eyes closed“
“Empire” uses beautiful imagery of natural scenery to describe what sounds to me like a passionate love. In this song, Raggi and his partner are now trying to forge an isolated but protected realm for the couple’s love to inhabit: “And from the rain / Comes a river running wild that will create / An empire for you, an empire for two”. However, these lyrics also hearken back to the adventurous yet isolated tones in My Head is an Animal, wherein Raggi is trying to build a life for himself and his partner in the wilderness.
This adventurous love becomes tumultuous in “Slow Life”. The narrator indicates that her relationship has become lost somehow: “But I’m a mountain / I am a killer / You’ll get lost and buried deep / If you swim with me”. She is afraid of hurting her lover if she loses control and becomes the beast she had feared.
The uncertain tumult is followed by a sad resignation. In “Organs”, our narrator is now giving up every part of her body, because “it reminds [her] how it all went wrong”. She accepts that it is at least partially her fault, but she is exhausted from the struggle. And yet, she is still determined to hold onto something: “But I leave in my heart / Because I don’t want to stay in the dark”.
The rhythm picks up again with a steady, honest reflection of what’s happened. In “Black Water”, both lovers recognize and accept the darkness that has consumed their love. They’re not running away from the fear and loss — “But I’m ready to suffer the sea / Black water – take over” — and learn from their past: “In the deepest depths I lost myself / See myself through someone else”. There is now a clear dichotomy between the lustful “beasts” within each lover, and the external torrents that their relationship has faced. They are wolves caught in a storm.
“Unto this storm and wait”
This gloomy acceptance becomes portentous determination in “Thousand Eyes”. Stripped of her pride, the narrator is rising from the deep abyss to face the storm:
I’ll be the call, I will be quiet
Stripped to the bone, I wait
No I’ll be a stone, I’ll be the hunter
Tower that casts a shade
She now faces the external storm and the internal beast head on as the hunter. The song builds to an ominous crescendo and a final declaration: “I am the storm… so wait”.
With “I Of the Storm” we see the narrator regretful and fearful that her former lover no longer cares for or needs her: “And it echoes when I breathe / Until all you see is my ghost”. She has faltered in her determination to overcome the storm. However, there is a flicker of hope in “We Sink”, as the narrators are now looking ahead, realizing that they are enveloped by the dark waters, but still searching for a way out: “I know that it’s a waste of time / Chasing in the dark / But keep me in your clouded minds / ‘Til time ignites a spark”.
The emotional tone is peaceful again with “Backyard”, in which our narrator is beginning to reform her protective shell in the cold night: “Under a starlit night / I wrap myself in thin sheet of ice / Out there the stars are crystallized”. She invites her lover to come find her, and yet is shielding herself from disappointment.
“Take me in your arms when walls are closing in”
The story closes with “Winter Sound”, a rousing song in which the narrator is determined to take control of her own destiny. She is now ready to shed the scarred shell she had formed around herself and jump back into the swirling passion of their love: “I shake away the skin to saturate my soul”. She knows the risk that may follow, but her scars have healed and she is less tenuous: “And you scream, you scratch, you bite, you prey on my heart / And I know that you and I can never be apart”.
The lovers will pursue each other, now stronger facing the storm (and their inner beasts), to whatever end:
You and I will not be shaken by the winter sound
But my voice is suffocating in the winter sound
“And I run further than before”
Beneath the Skin seems to continue the tale of the two lovers, whose headlong bounds into the unknown we encountered in My Head is an Animal. The narrators are not as naive as they once had been, as even when they falter and seem ready to give up, they discover the strength to continue on. I think the same can be said of the band as a whole. Of Monsters and Men were certainly not “naive” musically in their debut album. In fact, it is a testament to their talent as musicians and songwriters how well Animals came together.
However, Beneath the Skin is the more polished version of this group. The simplistic rhythms and vocal chanting are still present, but they have been blown out into adroitly layered compositions with deeper evocative force. This album is an overture.
Just as our two lovers survived trials and storms to end up together, Of Monsters and Men have pressed on through years of tours and an extended writing/recording period to emerge tested and grown. They now are a highly developed group whose lyrics and music are permeated by stirring emotional power.
Lyrics adapted from YouTube and AZLyrics.com