"I'm cold," Jónsi sings to open the title track of his latest record, Shiver. The verse represents a stark left turn for an artist who—both in his solo career and as the frontman for legendary post–rock band Sigur Rós—has radiated warmth, comfort, and joy.
The simple declaration is fitting. Shiver is an icy album. An unwavering chill permeates every aspect of Shiver, to the point where the drums on the title track sputter and creak like they're literally freezing in place. The rest of the album, too, has towering, glacial instrumentals that freeze you in place, and glitchy, post–industrial beats that rain down like falling icicles. Jónsi's countertenor, shimmering with the luminosity of the Northern Lights, remains the sole reprieve of the soundscape's unforgiving tundra. Even on tracks like "Swill," where harsh noises thrash around, Jónsi's voice is there, a constant, soothing force: "As I drown / You will own / My soul" he laments on the song's bridge.
The abnormally harsh production style—perhaps foreshadowed by Sigur Rós' bleaker, almost industrial Kveikur (2013)—was primarily helmed by PC Music ringleader AG Cook. Cook's approach to sound design can feel visceral at times, like he's chiseling ice sculptures rather than pushing buttons and dials to change waveforms on a screen. The result is phenomenal: Shiver is one of the best records either Jónsi or Cook have created, a harmonious marriage between Jónsi's soft beauty and Cook's harsh electronica—a perfect mix of pillowy snow and sharp hail. Cuts like "Grenade" and "Cannibal (feat. Elizabeth Fraser)" feature more traditional instrumentation. The place Jónsi's voice front and center before exploding into moments of metallic beauty, like watching a snowflake shatter under a microscope. Cook's tendency to crowd out any other production with his intentionally over–the–top beats is restrained: By working in the context of Jónsi's music, Cook is able to add flourishes and details rather than churn out the same clanging snares that have become ubiquitous across PC Music–adjacent releases.
Some tracks carry Cook's influence more prominently. "Wildeye," the most industrial–tinged track on the album, features Cook's crunching drums going berserk to wildly primal beats, and "Salt Licorice (feat. Robyn)" carries an energetic, club–ready feel that wouldn't feel out of place on a Charli XCX album. Still, Jónsi's unique voice and touching lyrics set these apart from the rest of Cook's discography. The drum breaks on "Wildeye" are only effective because of the calm that precedes the storm, and "Salt Licorice" is endlessly endearing, with Robyn singing "I sink in your blue eyes, blondie boy."
Shiver's greatest strength, though, is when both Jónsi and Cook opt for completely new palettes, moving past their distinctive aesthetics rather than attempting to combine them. "Sumarið sem aldrei kom" ("The Summer That Never Arrived," in English) is almost entirely a capella, with AG Cook's distinctive vocal processing techniques (see: Caroline Polachek's "Ocean of Tears") recontextualized to create a ghostly choir. "Sumarið sem aldrei kom" also makes brilliant use of empty space, manipulating pockets of silence to build and release tension. Jónsi's choir crescendos and crescendos, adding voices and layers and intensity, before finally exploding in a glorious splendor. Then, the mix cools back down, and Jónsi mutters "Við dauð og djöful búum við / á þessu litla skítaskeri." ("We live on nothing but death and devil / on this tiny shitty rock.")
In many ways, this album is a spiritual successor to fellow Icelandic Bjork's 1997 effort Homogenic. Both albums are music–as–architecture, combining synthesized electronics with analog instruments to create vast landscapes of unquestionably Icelandic terrain. Bjork was quite literal with her intentions: She wanted Homogenic to feel like "rough volcanoes with soft moss growing over it." Though Jónsi hasn't been as explicit, the stark, sharp, unfeeling coldness certainly carries images of the island, with its rocky cliffs and dark skies. But just like Iceland itself, the music is as gorgeous as it is unforgivingly icy.
The first time I visited Iceland, I listened to Go, Jónsi's first record, while riding the bus from Keflavík airport into Reyjkavík. As I drove, gazing at the vast expanses of green vegetation, Jónsi's promises of unfettered optimism rang clear: "Go sing too loud… Go drum too proud… Go do." If I ever visit again, I'll be sure to trade Go for Shiver. Just like Jónsi, I'm a little bit more mature, a little bit more jaded; the world is less hopeful, more barren. I know now that the seas of emerald green grass which dot the Icelandic landscape are a thin veneer for the freezing black rock below. Winter is fast approaching and, with it, cold. So just like Jónsi, I'll ask my loved ones to stop my shivering, to hold me tighter, to keep me warm.