I’m not sure that meditative music is generally meant to be exciting. But some kind of peace – the new album by the Icelandic multi-instrumentalist Ólafur Arnalds, out this Friday on Mercury KX – feels bracing as much as it does tranquil. Take the rise and fall of the piano on “New Grass”, over which luminous strings push the melody onward, before they take over entirely. Or the circling violin of “Spiral”: at times hesitant, at times full-bowed, it is intriguing as much as it is hypnotic.
There is more vulnerability here than Arnalds has shown in his previous work. The musician, who was born in 1986 in Mosfellsbær, a town close to Reykjavik, is known for merging contemporary classical and electronic music, looping piano melodies, and mixing strings in with pop beats. Some kind of peace is his fifth studio album, following 2018’s Re:member, which featured two self-playing, algorithm-driven pianos of Arnalds’ own design.
But assessing Arnalds’s work only through these releases would be to miss some of his most creative output. His 2009 “collection” Found Songs was made up of seven songs he recorded on seven consecutive days, each made instantly available online. For 2016’s Island Songs, he spent seven weeks travelling through seven Icelandic towns, collaborating with seven different musicians, and releasing a song, with an accompanying video, each week. Arnalds’s atmospheric, ambient-leaning sound also makes him a coveted soundtrack composer, and among his many credits is the music for ITV crime drama Broadchurch, for which Arnalds won a BAFTA in 2014.
For the first time on some kind of peace, Arnalds leaves any sense of a concept behind. Instead he has written a record of simple and beautiful songs that speak to his lived experiences, rather than some grandiose, experimental notion. This writing feels instinctive, and gladly so. Arnalds, a self-confessed control freak, has said the record was borne out of his realisation that we can never control everything, though we can control how we react to what life throws at us. This year the sentiment feels particularly true. It rang out even in the practicalities of making the album: Arnalds conceived many of the ideas on it when he was out in the open, hiking in the Icelandic countryside and spending time with collaborators in person. Then the pandemic hit and so his adventure-fuelled process had to change; he moved into his harbour-side studio in downtown Reykjavik to complete the album, working remotely with his collaborators.
Opener “Loom”, a collaboration with British trip-hop musician Bonobo, is injected with the producer’s trademark pulsating beats, but Arnalds also finds space for bright melodies, which he weaves in and around each other until the track – straightforward by design – becomes elaborate in texture. He uses a similar technique on “Still/Sound”: what begins as a collection of sparse piano motifs gradually warms as the electronic treatment deepens. At some points the song could be the momentary quiet section before a club-ready drop; at other times it sounds hymnal.
A subtle piety is there too on “Woven Song”, reminiscent of the most tender tracks Sufjan Stevens wrote for the 2017 film Call Me By Your Name. Here the piano is accompanied by a vocal sample of Herlinda Agustin Fernandez of the Shipibo Shamans, an ancient Peruvian tribe who live in the Amazon rainforest. Sung as though down a phone line, the vocals offer an ethereality to the now familiar warmth of Arnalds’ strings. These traditional orchestral instruments, when placed next to such a voice, take on a whole new mode – and it becomes clear why Arnalds keeps returning to them and their endless possibilities.
On an album that is majoritively instrumental, the rare appearance of the human voice lends immediate closeness, particularly on two new recordings. The first is that of Icelandic singer JFDR, real name Jófríður Ákadóttir, who features on “Back to the Sky”, a burgeoning electro-pop track, where she asks “What do I do/With half of myself?”
The second is from Josin – the artist name of German composer and producer Arabella Rauch – who, on the intense bliss of “The Bottom Line”, offers some of the album’s most affecting moments. It’s here, as Josin’s rich, reedy voice mimics the track’s deep cello, that Arnalds sounds most comfortable in following his remarkable musical instinct, more exposed and more grounded than ever before.