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Ólafur Arnalds - Eulogy for Evolution / Variations of Static

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Artist: Ólafur Arnalds

Album: Eulogy for Evolution / Variations of Static

Label: Erased Tapes

Review date: Sep. 4, 2008

In his two-part debut salvo, pianist-plus Ólafur Arnalds either treats pop like chamber music or treats chamber music like pop – it’s hard to decide. His pieces, slow and usually wordless, gather themselves up with resolute stateliness and exaggerated solemnity, but at heart they’re simple, ingratiating things. Much of what makes him an interesting artist, to listen to now and to watch in the future, is the tension between lofty rumination and immediate gratification, because the tension itself is just as conceivably artifice as it is a kind of soul-baring indecision.

Arnalds (not to be confused with fellow Icelander and sometime Múm affiliate Ólöf Arnalds) gets good mileage out of the “composer” mantle, the same slight divergence that puts sound diarists like Max Richter on a separate plane from less pompous counterparts like the Album Leaf. If he channels both, the former on the airless full-length Eulogy for Evolution and the latter on the human-after-all EP Variations of Static, the composer in him wins out for the vast majority of the runtime. The spots where Arnalds goes for the easy sell, rhythmically and melodically, are the most rewarding, but he spreads them so far apart that he winds up cheapening them into heavy-handed climaxes or second-degree nods to more… modern-sounding music.

The spirit that comes closest to mind is that of reformed Pop Will Eat Itself singer Clint Mansell, whose score from Requiem for a Dream blueprints Eulogy for Evolution in more than just title. Both are sharp and economical albums based on recurring themes, and heavily reliant on strings except for a few moments of predictable violence (not to say, in either case, that the moments themselves come on predictably, only that the idea of violence is rendered pretty obviously, by washes of guitar fuzz or piercing electronic percussion). The big difference, of course, is that Eulogy is the soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist, the companion piece to a story told implicitly in the tracks’ names (times rather than titles) and booklet photographs. Promotional murmurs confirm that the evolution in question is the one from birth to death, and indeed certain passages recall pinpoints in a life, in ways familiar to anyone who has ever seen a movie.

Frankly, though, the music works as well for any evolution you care to imagine. That’s actually the important point: it works better with an imagined evolution, be it romantic or cultural or planetary, than it does on its own. The music is suitably pretty, but it has little traction without an attendant narrative. It’s not played that expressively or arranged that intuitively; it leaves a lot to the imagination but doesn’t do very much to stir it. Arnalds tethers his compositions to a concept on the follow-up EP Variations of Static as well, this time a sharper one, explicated obliquely by maudlin text spoken in a bleary computer voice. Here it works more convincingly, not thanks to the text (which is mostly irritating) but because the tracks are more engaging individually, from syrupy glitch ballad “Fok” to the atmospherically rich if structurally frustrating “Himininn er ad hrynja, en stjörnurnar fara pér vel.” It’s not really a question of melodic or tonal difference, more that Arnalds is willing to entertain rather than indicate, willing to put small ideas into the pieces rather than trying to put the pieces into a big idea.

Arnalds’ music, Eulogy in particular, depends heavily on the benefit of the doubt, a pitfall of the class of composer he seemingly aspires to be: the superimposed conceptual framework is meant to bring out the richness of the music, but sometimes winds up exposing a certain nakedness in it. We’ve only begun to see the interesting places Arnalds has to explore with his evident compositional talents, but his insistence on the thought-experiment possibilities of his music blows him a little off course here. In trying too hard to illustrate enormous things, he ends up illustrating the dangers of making music transitively, of writing the artist’s statement before painting the picture.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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