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.”
Birgisson and Somers, who met in Boston in 2003, have put their artistic heads together before. In addition to worldwide exhibits of their pencil-and-charcoal drawings, watercolor paintings, and video art, they’ve released a cookbook (both eat only raw food and are certified raw-food chefs), a limited-edition art book called Riceboy Sleeps, and last year’s moody instrumental album of the same name. The title Riceboy Sleeps originated soon after they met, when Somers was a broke student at the Berklee College of Music. “He was superpoor and used to buy these humongous bags of rice,” Birgisson remembers. “It was the only thing he could afford. He lived on it for months—rice, olive oil, and salt. And he slept a lot.” To mix the music for Riceboy Sleeps, Birgisson and Somers left Iceland and headed to a raw-food commune in Hawaii, where they used only solar power. “We had a small hut in the middle of a jungle, surrounded by fruit trees, with one laptop, two speakers, and a bed—nothing else,” Birgisson says.
Birgisson’s approach could have come off as twee or pretentious, but hearing him talk about his music and Somers, it becomes apparent he’s truly a hopeless romantic. Birgisson creates expansive projects because he feels things in a big way. “When I first met Alex I thought, Whoa! This boy is the most beautiful boy I’ve ever seen in my life,” he says. “It was love at first sight.” Does he really believe in that? “Of course I do,” he replies.
Before he and Somers became indie rock’s new John and Yoko, Birgisson had the idea to create a music video about two boys in love. The idea eventually became Sigur Rós’s stunning 2001 video for “Viðrar vel til Loftárása,” which depicts two adolescent footballers secretly in love in the 1950s. Shot entirely in slow motion, the majestic seven-minute clip is one of the most moving videos of the past decade—and certainly one of the few to portray a same-sex relationship. “I was very proud of it,” Birgisson recalls. “It’s still my favorite of our videos. I remember one of my friends told me he was sitting with his kid on the sofa watching TV, and the video came on. His son, who was 4 or 5, asked, ‘Why are these boys kissing?’ and he had to explain everything—about being gay and different. I think it was really good for him. That video is just a basic love story.”