Olafur Arnalds, 'For Now I Am Winter' (Mercury Classics)

7
For Now I Am Winter
Critical Mass
Release Date: April 2, 2013
Label: Mercury Classics

by David Menconi

The major label debut from Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds begins and ends on a familiar note, with bookend tracks flaunting his signature blend of stately electronic ambience and classical flourishes; the closer, "Carry Me Anew," also dissolves into about 20 seconds of complete silence. But in between, For Now I Am Winter revels in a profound new element: Four tracks feature actual vocals. In English, no less. Over a backdrop of throbbing electronic swells, guest vocalist Arnor Dan quavers a declaration on the title track: "For now I am winter / Lungs debut." That they do.

The living, breathing aspect of Arnalds' music is more evident here than on his previous six years’ worth of albums and EPs, which makes Winter easily his most straightforwardly accessible and mainstream-leaning effort to date. Which is impressive: The 26-year-old juggles so many clashing elements and aesthetics that it's a wonder he can stand up straight. He began his music career playing drums in hardcore bands (the charmingly named Fighting Shit among them), before turning to a head-trippy combination of ambient electronic and minimalist classical, landing somewhere between prog rock and post-rock. It's quite a concoction, balancing the elegant precision of classical overtures with loose-limbed, mechanical clank and clatter. The beats aren't exactly block-rockin' — more like grains of sand that Arnalds turns into pop pearls.

The aptly titled result has been subdued headphone music that seems perfect for after-hours solitude, which hasn't stopped Arnalds from getting out and playing live — he's opened for Sigur Rós, after all, and he's got an appealingly lowbrow pop sense. Winter echoes everything from '80s new wave (there are traces of Prefab Sprout's "When Love Breaks Down" in the keyboard pings of "Hands, Be Still") to pulpy soundtracks (the title track evokes something like the late-night urban menace of '70s blaxploitation scores). Using the structure, instrumentation, and concepts of classical music, Arnalds renders delicious pop tunes that thrive within the grandeur of Nico Muhly's orchestral arrangements.

That combo also has served the guy well when it comes to career logistics. For all its vibes of timelessness and mystery, this stuff is still very of-the-moment: Arnalds has sneaked songs into The Hunger Games, The Colbert Report, and even So You Think You Can Dance. He also has a flair for social-networking immediacy, releasing past projects via Twitter and YouTube; crowd-sourced works featuring reinterpretations of Winter tracks are already in progress.

No cork-lined room for him, then, and this album is probably going to bring even more people around. Winter measures up as a dozen fanfares in search of movies, vignettes of somber serenity that are lovely in spite of their funereal overtones. They'd work great as accompaniment to an experimental film by, say, Ang Lee, with scenes playing out over a surreal and very cold Arctic landscape, shell-shocked characters battling emotional as well as weather-induced numbness. The music is quite spare, but it effectively implies what it doesn't specify.

Arnalds' simple and melodically precise piano anchors most of these tracks, often tracing patterns along the lines of a Philip Glass arpeggio, with the electronic beats and Muhly's orchestrations rising and falling deliberately. At times, those elements seem to mimic each other: "Brim" commences with off-kilter strings bouncing off a jittery electronic beat, before that all drops away to reveal a keyboard figure reminiscent of Peter Gabriel's early-'80s lament "San Jacinto," whereas "Only the Winds" gradually builds up with the inevitability of an approaching storm.

Still, it's the four tracks featuring Dan's singing that comprise Winter's true heart. Themes of wistful regret predominate (to the point that they color the wordless tracks surrounding them), especially on "Old Skin," whose accompanying video shows an old fellow tending to what looks like the last lonely lighthouse at the end of the world while pondering tantalizing hallucinations of youthful exuberance in every bubble he sees. So he dives in via his bathtub as Dan chants, "Not enough for me." But it's more than enough.

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