As I hinted when reviewing Of Monsters and Men’s Into the Woods EP a couple of months ago, the pop and indie universes seem to be on a collision course. This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon – remember all of the hullabaloo surrounding Modest Mouse embracing Top 40 with “Float On” back in ’03? – but we’ve reached a point, culturally, where the dividing line is almost nonexistent. Arcade Fire and Bon Iver have Grammys now, and Gotye and Florence + The Machine are dominating airwaves right alongside Britney Spears and LMFAO. Of course, the definition of indie may have shifted a bit in transit; the indie music dominating airwaves is a bit closer to the indie we used to listen to in 2006, while the hipsters have moved from acoustic guitars to synthesizers and canned drums. It’s a vicious circle.
Still, the indie-pop making waves in the regular-pop universe continues to evade critics, who largely criticize crossover acts like Mumford & Sons for, essentially, tarting up basic old pop melodies and lyrics with esoteric instrumentation, thus presenting a cheap facsimile of indie music; remember, to appease the hipster gestapo, it’s imperative that melody and accessibility be kept to a minimum, and if you’re unwilling to do that, at least have the good sense to provide some good old-fashioned tape hiss to keep the enterprise out of the grubby paws of mainstream listeners. This school of thought is problematic, of course – Mumford & Sons are appealing precisely because they’re pop to their core, not in spite of that fact. Accordingly, Icelandic six-piece Of Monsters and Men have made waves on the basis of inescapable single “Little Talks” – every bit as catchy as “Somebody That I Used To Know” or “Pumped Up Kicks” – and have subsequently unleashed an album of similar material on us. Like “Little Talks”, it’s catchy, melodically and emotionally accessible, and mildly folksy; it remains to be seen if the indie kids are gonna latch on, but if they don’t, they’re certainly missing out.
My Head is an Animal effortlessly time-warps back to 2006, see; it’s a dizzying, epic encapsulation of all the Arcade Fire and The National and Beirut we were listening to in that bygone era, with a bit of latter-day Iron & Wine thrown in there for good measure. This sort of instant-vintage venture could seem passe, but there’s a beauty inherent in the record that goes a lot deeper than their sugar-rush big hit; more than ever, the Arcade Fire comparisons that initially crippled the band sound a lot more apt in light of their full-length. This isn’t a bad thing, considering that Funeral achieved instant best-thing-ever status upon release, a level of hype unseen again until My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. And if Of Monsters and Men don’t exactly improve upon the template set by their Canadian counterparts – the crushing existentialism isn’t quite there – they’ve easily mastered melodies and arrangements that elicit that elusive feeling of gooseflesh slowly crawling up the forearms.
Most tracks build to a shivering catharsis; opener “Dirty Paws” nails it just a few minutes in, culminating in a beautiful wordless chant punctuated with crashing cymbals and strong power chords. They’ve nailed the emotional catch-and-release of their ill-defined genre, suspenseful melodies building to gangbusters “oohs” and “la la las”. Beneath the winding melody and medieval imagery of “King and Lionheart” lies a perfect song for a moonlit drive; several holdovers from their appetizer EP, the Win-Butler-via-The-Killers “Six Weeks” included, sound even more potent in context, fitting snugly into the album’s natural ebb and flow. Singles like “Little Talks” and new hit “Love Love Love” provide little emotional islands amidst the lurching, breathless tracklist, lacking the dynamics and complexity of their deep-cut counterparts, but making up for it in sheer spirit and consistency of mood. (“Little Talks” seems to retain a lot more potency divorced from the anything-goes quick-fix of FM radio, and “Love Love Love” functions as a terrific mid-album breather, a wistful comedown before launching back into things.) Throughout, the record is dotted with small instrumental flourishes that, pleasantly, don’t distract from the tunes; the trumpet and accordion on “Little Talks” drive the song all the way home, and there’s a divine horn section that muscles its way into the 6/8 minimalism of “Numb Bears”.
Yet, despite everything, Of Monsters and Men is still a pop act; a particularly potent one, sure, but pop nonetheless. The hooks are immediate, so this full-scale return to the indie-pop of yore doesn’t really take any getting used to; it’s a glorious melange of gang vocals and emotional catharses, dusted with just the right amount of off-kilter instrumentation to keep things interesting. My Head is an Animal is a stellar debut for these upstarts; if their hit single leads a few more people to its turbulent shores, then “Little Talks” has done its job.