Music Review – My Head is an Animal by Of Monsters and Men

This month has seen more big rock / indie artists releasing albums than I can remember for years, with the Killers, Two Door Cinema Club, XX, the Vaccines, Grizzly Bear, and the Mumfords and Muse to come very soon.  (Not to mention oldies like Dylan and the Pet Shop Boys!) So we will have a multi-artist review next weekend as well. But today I’m concentrating on a contender (along with alt-J and Django Django) for my album of the year.

Let’s get a little metaphysical first. My world is heavily focused on physical sensation (I love sport, food, drink.. ) and intellect (I love reading, arguing, writing).  I’m less interested in life’s intangibles - at heart, I think I’m a pretty un-spiritual person. But there is no doubt that music has the ability to move me in a way and at a level that few other things do. And there are certain artists whose success has, I believe, largely depended on a strange ability to appeal to a wide audience on a quasi-spiritual – call it religious if you like – level.

Some artists have it quite generically – some achieve it on certain songs or albums. I would argue that U2 and REM have the ability to hit it regularly but not consistently. Bono has religious beliefs of course, and there’s no doubt that songs like One and With or Without You are spiritual and very successful at connecting even to non-believers like me. (One is an all time favourite top ten song for me).

Arcade Fire are another band who inspire reactions beyond the “surface” of their music – there are fewer overtly religious references in their work compared to U2, but songs like Wake Up and Rebellion work on an emotional level way beyond 99% of popular songs.

More recently, the enormous and totally unexpected success of Mumford and Sons can only be explained by their ability to appeal on a level that we can’t fully rationalise. I know I’ve said this before, but I saw them supporting Laura Marling five years ago and no-one would have guessed they would sell 5 million copies of their first album! But seeing 15,000 kids sing every word with them at Reading three years ago, it was clear something was going on beyond just a few nice tunes.

With all of these bands, what is it that enables them to achieve this? Is it the chord sequences – the use of major and minor chords? Something about the tone of voice of certain singers? The lyrics? I’ve been analysing this to try and explain the success of the latest band to pull off this trick- Of Monsters and Men.

I mentioned them in my review of Reading Festival and now My Head Is An Animal has been released in the UK. It has been out for months in the USA and has been an unexpected hit – for an Icelandic folk/rock band to get their debut in the Billboard top ten is a unique achievement. Less than two years ago they were playing to 30 people in Reykjavik bars and folk clubs! Reading or Glastonbury headliners by about 2015 I reckon....

And my lengthy pre-amble is because I can’t really explain why this music works in the way it does. It’s uplifting, atmospheric and melodic - they write a strong tune. The voices of the male / female leads combine nicely together, and the use of instruments like accordion and brass works well and brings some variation. The words are – well, they come across as the writers’ second language at times, but they have a bit of that Florence / Bjork focus on nature, love and mysticism. It’s more folky than Arcade Fire and more rocky than the Mumfords but has some similarities with both of these hugely successful bands.

There are a few weaker tracks that float by without intruding too much, but songs like Little Talks and Dirty Paws work both as enjoyable folk-rock songs  and at this mysterious emotional level (well, for me anyway)!  They were great live too, and I’ve have just bought tickets (going fast) to see them at Shepherd’s Bush Empire next March.  So, without pretending I can quite explain why, it’s a 9/10 for the album.

This was an acoustic performance in the BBC treehouse during Reading Festival.


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