BY Jason Lamphier
March 10 2010 9:00 AM ET
The first 20 seconds of Jón Thor Birgisson’s new solo record are a clear indication that the Sigur Rós front man has taken a leap. Since 2000, when his Icelandic quartet’s breakthrough album, Ágætis Byrjun, stunned music critics and cynical indie-rock lovers alike, Birgisson has been cooking up epic slow-burners. His first full-length solo recording, Go, begins fast, with a thicket of birdlike chirps, fluttering woodwinds, and heart-pounding percussion. Much of the glacial, alien quality of Birgisson’s earlier work with Sigur Rós has melted away to reveal a gorgeous collection of mostly brisk, summery jams. Go sounds fearless, like the rush of falling in love.
“First I said I wanted a low-key acoustic album,” Birgisson explains in his trilling Icelandic accent, “but it turned into this totally different thing after I’d finished.” Indeed, there’s nothing low-key about tracks like “Boy Lilikoi” and Go’s opener, “Go Do,” which, with lines like “make your day break” and “we can do anything,” suggests moments of wide-eyed epiphany, of surging forward and taking risks. “I think a lot of the lyrics on this album are about hopes and fears,” he says. “The upbeat, playful, more colorful songs have a lot to do with being alive, doing whatever the hell you want. The quiet, slower songs are more about the fear you have in your stomach every single day that keeps you from doing what you want.”
The lanky 34-year-old performer credits fear (surrendering to it and rising above it) with making him the musician he is today. “I grew up in the countryside outside Reykjavik. I didn’t know anybody who was gay or lesbian until I was 21, and I came out of the closet quite late,” he says. “You get to this age when you know you’re gay and you want to touch somebody, kiss somebody—and you can’t. It’s a secret you carry with you. I didn’t want to face that I was gay, so I had to create. I had to have some kind of meaning, a release. I think it’s the reason I’m here today.”
To achieve Go’s dense, bracing arrangements, Birgisson enlisted Finnish drummer Samuli Kosminen and modern classical composer Nico Muhly, who’s worked with Björk and Antony and the Johnsons. The greatest collaborative force in Birgisson’s life these days, however, is his American-born boyfriend, Alex Somers, who along with Peter Katis (the National, Interpol) helped him produce the album. His relationship with Somers also inspired Birgisson to shift gears lyrically. Go, recorded under his nickname, Jónsi, marks only the second time he has sung in English. When not performing in Icelandic, he usually coos along in made-up falsetto gibberish called “Hopelandic,” a term the band coined. “We speak a lot of English when we’re home in Iceland,” Birgisson says, “so it was a good challenge for me to write English lyrics. It was quite difficult.”