In the fall of 2011, a friend of mine started circulating a thumb drive amongst my little insular college clique, insisting everyone download this one particular album he’d found somewhere in the dark corners of the internet where he went to hunt for the most obscure new music he could find. “These guys are so good,” he said. “They’re Icelandic, they won a contest or something. You can’t even get the album on American iTunes yet. It’s amazing.”
It was. We fell in love, all of us, turning it up and dancing in the living room and howling the lyrics into the darkened trees behind our apartment building as the first snows began to fall. So did everyone else — fast-forward half a year and the band, Of Monsters and Men, could be heard in cars and coffee shops and malls everywhere. Their album My Head is an Animal was not only available on American iTunes but on the fast track to platinum sales. For a time it seemed like they’d be a one-off sensation, burning out early from too much too soon thanks to a magic in their sound that most people assumed would evade duplication (an anxiety inspired, maybe, by the cringingly bombastic sophomore release from Mumford and Sons). But they’ve just announced a new album, and the first single, “Crystals” has everything that made Of Monsters and Men a sensation in the first place.
“Crystals” is pop magic touched with smoky softness, lingering and lovely and delicately occult. I will allow it to be called folk only if folk is preceded by fey, because their lush, orchestral sound has nothing to do with folk except maybe the implied sweaters and bleak landscapes. The instrumentals are dreamy and lovely with a thrumming beat that sets your pulse going — a sound as big as the sky, and as intimate. Lead vocalist Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir’s voice swoops from a high, iceblink clarity to a softer, spookier, almost feline mewl, never not ringing with otherworldly beauty.
I want to talk about the lyrics, but Of Monsters and Men doesn’t do lyrics – they do the lyric, pure lyric, the kind of thing Erato would listen to as she danced in a clearing of white roses or across a deserted beach of volcanic sands. Cover your crystal eyes / and feel the tones that tremble down your spine / cover your crystal eyes / and let your colors bleed and blend with mine, goes the chorus, and as they sing it, it happens to you — it becomes hard to feel like anything but a bank of glittering clouds; a wide aerial shot lifting away and away from rocks below into a sky cut through with cold pure sunlight; a bright, clear thing taking in the world.
Of Monsters and Men write fairytales about the making and unmaking of selves, the way humans turn into landscapes and creatures and monsters and dazzling abstracts, and this is no exception. “Crystals” is about captivity and unburdening, vulnerability and terror and growth — as in I know I’ll wither / so peel away the bark / cause nothing / grows when it is dark. It is a song about anxiously anticipating change: In spite of all my fears / I can see it all so clear. It is a love song — not, as the chorus might have you believe, between the you of the crystal eyes and the narrator that peels and withers, but instead a love song to a changed self, a self that is both stronger and more fragile than the self left behind. I’m okay in see-through skin / I forgive what is within. “Crystals” is a transfiguration song. “Crystals” is a song of rebirth. Of Monsters and Men’s second album, Beneath the Skin, is slated for release on June 9th, and I for one am super excited.