Genre: Synthpop, Pop Rock
Favorite Tracks: “Alligator,” “Vulture, Vulture,” “Wild Roses,” “Under the Dome”
Artists make art for themselves as much as they make it for public consumption. It’s unfair of me or anyone else to demand artists do something they don’t want to do themselves. Of Monsters and Men lead singer Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir seems pretty done with the whole stomp-clap, anthemic indie-folk scene that broke out in the wake of Mumford and Sons, who themselves grew sick of it as well, which is a shame, because they were probably the most interesting band to emerge out of that scene and into the mainstream. MY HEAD IS AN ANIMAL was a little too dry for me despite excellent singles like “Mountain Sound” and “Little Talks,” but BENEATH THE SKIN was a perfect follow-up that paired more impressionistic lyrics and their distinctive vocal arrangements to chilling chamber pop that gives me goosebumps to this day.
All this said, my worry going into FEVER DREAM was that it would follow in the footsteps of Mumford and Sons’ WILDER MIND in going for a safe brand of lighters-in-the-air, languid, piano-heavy pop-rock that was not lyrically compelling enough to justify such solemn, joyless music. However, the lead single “Alligator” was a lot heavier and more psychedelic than I expected, and the album title hinted at a whirlwind of scattered emotions and figures that should fit their writing style and languid, colorful instrumentation without a lot of definition or form. Sadly, though there are hints of what the title and “Alligator” promise, FEVER DREAM is ultimately a frustratingly anonymous and bland album that only rises to average on the back of the band’s natural talent.
Of Monsters and Men have a strong enough musical framework to persist even with all the changes. Nanna and Ragnar Þórhallsson are both potent, emotive singers, and even if I wish there was a little more interplay between the two, there are some pretty harmonies on “Ahay,” “Wars,” and “Vulture, Vulture.” They know how to write songs with real surge and build to them, and although the guitars have largely taken a backseat to pianos and more atmospheric elements, the distorted rumble of “Alligator” that sounds like an indie rock cover of a Torche song, the tight, 1975-esque licks of “Vulture, Vulture,” and the shimmering tone contrasted with the lone, screeching power chord on “Ahay” are versatile and engrossing.
Much of the album is going for a moonlit, pensive mood, but in the process it forgets to be a good pop album. For all the effective build that Of Monsters and Men have, a lot of the hooks don’t connect thanks to an odd tunelessness. The drums are slow and often the most prominent melody, which outright kills “Ahay,” “Soothsayer,” “Sleepwalker,” and “Stuck in Gravity,” and any piano or keyboards are too drippy and formless to make much impact. The soundscapes feel so hollow, bland, and dated, like they could have come from any Coldplay-esque band 10 years ago. At least when Kings of Leon similarly sold out on WALLS and made bland, stadium-rock mush, they kept their propulsive groove and low-end. This record is less a fever dream and more a quiet, pleasant nap.
It’s not easy to figure out what Of Monsters and Men are singing about, but their best songs still contain striking illustrations that get you to feel something. It’s impossible to not get chills at the graphic self-mutilation depicted on “Organs,” get swept up in the majesty of a wild river of creating an empire on “Empire,” or feel distraught at the metaphorical storm of self-doubt and personal demons taking her under on “I Of the Storm.” FEVER DREAM takes a lot of the self-doubt of that song and appears to be using a muddled relationship as a metaphor for the band struggling with their newfound fame and fans. “Ahay” questions if fans truly know them, “Waiting for the Snow” questions what the fans can offer them,” “Róróró” is about trying to appeal to everyone and realizing that they are not ready for the pressures of stardom, and “Under the Dome” boldly asserts that the band is done with being held under a creative dome, going so far as to proclaim “fuck the way we were.”
These are not bad ideas to write songs about, and there’s a satisfying arc to the record with the closing track “Soothsayer” asking the fans to stick around even as they change. Being stuck in a fever dream would also explain some of the contradictory statements the band make, like on the chorus of “Alligator” where they lose control and then take control five lines later. Sadly, although the verses contain plenty of references to color and elements of nature like snow, mountains, and bulls, a lot of the hooks are blunter, more direct, and don’t mesh with the meditative vibe of the music. There are exceptions: “Wild Roses” contains some cathartic, memorable images like “Oh, roses, they don’t mean a thing” and “In the night, we are wild-eyed,” and the bright optimism of “Vulture, Vulture” is a good fit for the funk-rock instrumentation. Much of the album falls into a horrible dead zone that Coldplay and their ilk often fall into where it’s not emotionally raw enough to spur a reaction nor is it peppered with enough powerful, thought-provoking pictures to match the dream-like sensation that the music frames it as.
Change is a part of life, and I respect Of Monsters and Men for doing everything short of giving a middle finger to their audience who wants them to just keep making more anthemic indie folk. However, for a band that complained about a repetitive creative process that was starting to feel stale, it’s hard to see FEVER DREAM as any more fresh or stimulating. There’s a good concept here, a satisfying arc, but when the band demands us to stick with them even as they change and to forget about what came before, it’s a lot harder to buy it when the old stuff was more distinct and memorable and was even better pop music than this.