Not too long ago, the LA-based Icelandic musician and Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi was traveling through London, where he met up with iconoclastic producer A.G. Cook, who he admired for his boundary-breaking work with the PC music collective. He had no expectation for the meeting, but the more they talked, the more he realized they might be perfect collaborators. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” Jónsi says. “I get tired of everything really easily. I always want things to be fun and exciting and fresh, and doing another album...I just wanted to have a different approach.”
Jónsi had made a career on sweeping music that plumbed the depths of the human experience and our connection to the natural world. Cook’s production exists at the opposite end of the spectrum: synthetic, sometimes abrasive, and often on the cutting edge of experimentalism. On paper, their collaboration is surprising, but Shiver is a beautiful record that pushes Jónsi’s otherworldly voice into startling new territories.
Though it sounds striking and modern, the bones of the songs on Shiver are actually seven or eight years old. “I was like, okay I’m going to do this all by myself. I’m going to record everything, write everything, mix everything. I was in the headspace that I could do everything. I had recorded all the songs but I hit the point where I realized I needed people. I needed other ears.” A.G. Cook and Jónsi stripped his songs back and rebuilt them from the ground up. “He was brutal, which was really healthy for me,” Jónsi says.
The result is an album that plays with pop structure even as it breaks into entirely new territory. “Swill” employs a roughly chopped horn sample that sounds like an emergency siren, with Jónsi’s multi-tracked syrup-sweet voice floating over the top. It’s a triumphant song, but unnervingly so, like it’s barely containing some kind of chaos. Album opener “Exhale” showcases a softer side of the collaboration: Over a bed of pillowy, glitchy synths and piano, Jónsi repeats “just let it go/it isn’t your fault,” which feels like both a mission statement for the album as a whole as well as a guide for living in the tumultuous 21st century.
This notion of artistic practice as therapy has been a major part of Jónsi’s life in recent years. At the end of 2019, he merged his love of creating scents with his love of music in a Los Angeles-based installation that played with the shape of sound, and how senses could “collapse upon one another.” The experience of listening to Shiver, with its emphasis on sensory overload and aural detail, feels like a direct result of the new terrain he covered with the installation.
On “Cannibal” this attention to detail is taken even further. A.G. Cook’s production burbles and hiccups, and Jónsi’s vocals are refreshingly open hearted. It also brings an aspect of Jónsi’s career full circle. The track features Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser, whose nimble and ethereal vocals flit through the track like a hummingbird. “When Sigur Rós was starting, we were always compared to Cocteau Twins and I really didn’t like that,” Jónsi says. “I hated being compared to anybody. Then I got really into Cocteau Twins like two or three years ago. They’re so good. I understood the comparison then.”
The only other voice we hear on the album comes from Robyn on “Salt Licorice,” where the two trade verses about “Scandanavian pain,” nostalgia, aging and depression over driving, pulsing blown out electronic miniatures. It’s a distillation of Shiver as a whole because it speaks to Jónsi’s world view: he’s unafraid to plumb dark emotional territory with an open heart.