With their debut album, My Head Is An Animal, the band rode the indie-folk wave that was in the wake of bands such as Mumford and Sons. It was a hugely successful ploy, and promoted the band from the ranks of being successful in Iceland to a stadium filling, festival favorite, multi-platinum selling machine. The album was buoyed by the success of single ‘Little Talks,’ with it’s catchy “Hey!” and Icelandic quirkiness making it one of the singles of 2012.
It would have been easy for the band to lose it all in this maelstrom of success, and succumb to difficult second album syndrome. It would have been all too easy to have written some songs on the road, used their well-trodden formula, added a sparse guitar and a few more “heys” in the background, packaged it up and sold it quickly to make a few króna. Thankfully, they haven’t.
Beneath The Skin is a much more mature offering. It still sounds like Of Monsters and Men, and still relies heavily on the partnership of Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson, but things have changed. Gone are the nonsensical lyrics (no more pet dragonflies a lá ‘Dirty Paws’) to be replaced with genuine themes and issues. The music has changed too, nothing drastic but there isn’t a ‘Little Talks’ here, and it’s none the poorer for it.
‘Crystals’ is all powerful drums and a showcase for Nanna’s fragile yet emotional voice. It’s mirrored by ‘Empire’ which seems to be a close relation, albeit featuring Raggi more than Nanna. ‘Slow Life’ is a slow burning delight, whilst ‘Thousand Eyes’ has a sting in its tail. ‘Organs’ is one of the albums gentler, more intimate highlights—it feels like Nanna is singling solely for the listener.
It’s not all plain sailing though. ‘Humans’ and ‘Wolves without Teeth’ are dangerously close to middle of the road, dinner table accompaniment territory, with little bite or hook to catch the listeners’ attention.
Oddly, two of the best songs ‘Winter Sound’ and ‘Backyard’ are not on every version of the album. They are on the deluxe version and the Icelandic version. They are both great songs, especially ‘Winter Sound’ which is a real ear-worm, as they say, and deserves much more than to be an afterthought.
Beneath the Skin is an accomplished album which benefits from repeated listens. Of Monsters and Men haven’t lost any of their allure, or been adversely affected by their success. Let’s hope that they continue to produce such ear worms.
Edward Hancox lives in in the United Kingdom with his wife and two small, noisy children but spends as much time as he can in Iceland. Music—especially contemporary Icelandic music—is his other passion. He writes about both subjects for Iceland Review and in his debut book, Iceland, Defrosted. He does not consider himself an expert on anything.