Review Summary: Out of the spotlight, into the heart.
It’s only natural to want to dismiss Beneath The Skin
at first. It’s plodding and bare compared to the band’s outwardly joyous debut My Head Is An Animal
, which placed Of Monsters and Men on the map back in 2012. Their lighthearted identity has been scrapped in favor of somber atmospheres and dark secrets – traits not necessarily suitable for a band that regularly references animals and shouts hey!
an average of nine time per song. On Beneath The Skin
however, that’s mostly in the past. Here Of Monsters and Men beckon you to join them in a far more personal space, and for all the ways in which it shouldn’t succeed, it’s an album that is that
much more impressive because it does.
It would be misleading to say that this is a complete departure. In fact, opener ‘Crystals’ isn’t even all that different from what you might expect, featuring whoa oh ohs
in a chorus that was already tailor-made for singalongs: “cover your crystal eyes / and let your colours bleed and blend with mine.” Lead singers Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson still play to their pop sensibilities, showing their love for vocal harmonies and instrumental crescendos while letting their incredible vocal talents fill in the gaps. In other words, Beneath The Skin
is more of a variation in the band’s sound than it is a massive overhaul. It feels like an album caught in the middle of a transformation, as if the band is still evolving and we’re just feeling the residual effects.
One noticeable change is how Nanna appears to have wrested away the primary vocal duties from Ragnar. Although the two continue to complement each other with each and every harmony that comes along, it’s no accident that Ragnar sees his first opportunity to lead once we’re already five tracks in. To be honest, it’s a more natural fit for the band, as Nanna’s elegant high notes lift each song to unimaginable heights. Ragnar’s softer, more earthly tones keep things well grounded, but they’re better suited in a complementary role. ‘Hunger’ is an absolutely gorgeous track that sees both singers at their respective peaks, reaching a climactic harmony of: “I’m drowning…I’m drowning…” before collapsing into a breathless, organ-underscored outro. It’s proof that within Beneath The Skin
’s vast scope, there’s actually plenty of room for the tremendous vocal assets of each singer.
Beneath The Skin
’s most telling moments center around Nanna’s emotional lyrics, such as on the vulnerable ‘Organs.’ On top of buoyant sounding pianos, she confesses “I should not care but I don’t know how”, before a somber violin cut leads her to completely tear down every single wall: “I take off my face / pull out my tongue / cough up my lungs, because they remind me of how it all went wrong. But I leave in my heart, because I don’t want to stay in the dark.” It’s visceral yet completely and utterly human, making ‘Organs’ an unforgettable epicenter whose impact can be felt long after the song has finished saying its piece. There’s gems like this sprinkled throughout the record, and they’re ripe for the picking by anyone with willing ears and an open heart.
While Beneath The Skin
certainly harbors artistic, emotional, and lyrical growth, it is also home to a rather dramatic shift in Of Monsters and Men’s instrumental stylings. Whereas the focus used to be on acoustic guitars, synths, and even woodwinds, everything now sounds denser and more purposeful – thus matching the tone. Drums and pianos are crucial here, as they not only provide a backdrop but also drive the rhythm quite frequently. The geared up percussion is perhaps never more noticeable than it is on ‘Wolves Without Teeth’ – a song whose tribal drumline fits in perfectly with the primeval feel that pervades so much of Beneath The Skin
. Factor in the romance of lines like “I breathe what is yours, you breathe what is mine”, and you have a perfectly bare-bones love ballad. They may not sound like a completely different band, but in this case that’s not a bad thing. Of Monsters and Men are able to adapt their musical approach to fit the mood of a particular album, and that skill serves them particularly well with their oft-melancholy sophomore release.
Not all is perfect on this band’s second run, however. For starters, it goes without saying that a lot of the band’s appeal as a fun-loving, insanely catchy indie-folk band will have to go temporarily by the wayside. This isn’t a feel good record; in fact, it delves into some pretty hefty topics that don’t make for casually light listening. Within the album’s depth exists a propensity to drag a bit, especially with the tracks that venture into the five minute range. It’s a bit forgivable though considering that those kinds of faults seem to come inherently with drawn out and emotionally weighted music. It obviously all depends on who’s listening, but the record does bring some drudgery amidst all its good qualities.
When placing Beneath The Skin
directly alongside this group’s debut, a few things become immediately clear. First, My Head Is An Animal
was a bid for attention. They needed people to listen to their music, so they went out and acquired them (quite successfully, I might add). Secondly, avid fans of their fun, hip-yet-mainstream sound will be awfully disappointed with this record – if not permanently then at least at first. Third, Beneath The Skin
is every bit as good as My Head Is An Animal
, despite the fact that it will likely be a commercial flop. This album has the feel of a “for us” record, one that rewards the band for making it and decides that it’s okay to create something deeply personal and a little self-indulgent. In this case, Of Monsters and Men have stepped out of the spotlight but straight into our hearts.