There is a tourism boom in Iceland, but those of us who cannot make it there in person should be glad for Ólafur Arnalds’ Island Songs project, which is designed to offer an aural journey through the lesser travelled landscapes with guidance from the locals who live there.
Arnalds starts us off in a church on a hillside in Hvammstangi, a remote town on the shore of an inlet. This is where poet & collaborator Einar Georg Einarsson comes to escape his everyday worries and explore creativity through writing. Einarsson begins “Árbakkinn” with a recitation of one of his own poems; a poem about the landscape he painted his childhood against. As Arnalds joins him with a tranquil piano and the strings eventually drift in it’s easy to imagine a restful day in Hvammstangi, with the easy flow of the nearby stream and a handful of small fishing boats bobbing in the nearby fjord.
He packs up his bags and heads five hours northwest to Önundarfjörður, a town surrounded by mountains and valleys where the winters are harsh. In 1995, a disastrous avalanche killed many people in a small village nearby. “1995” was recorded in a church with a memorial stone outside in remembrance of the villagers whose lives were lost. Here, Arnalds collaborates with his cousin, Dagny Arnalds. She plays the organ in a looping, funereal piece.
Arnalds spent week 3 in ”The Church of Sailors,” a small stave church situated on an isolated landscape near the ocean. “Raddir” is the first of two island songs that uses vocals. Arnalds has teamed up with conductor Hilmar Örn Agnarsson and composer Georg Kári Hilmarsson to create a celestial work for choir. I have not mentioned the accompanying videos to the Island Songs project until this point. I do it now to prove that I don’t use the word “celestial” carelessly. In Baldvin Z’s video, the camera pans a circle around the church and catches the sun filtering through the church windows, projecting dozens of tiny rainbows onto the walls. This, accompanied by the choir’s otherworldly harmonies, definitely left this viewer with the feeling of transcendence.
Week five. We’re in Mosfellsdalur now. I will point you again toward Baldvin’s companion video, this time to “Dalur” — the look on Arnalds’ face at the very end of the song says more than I could put into words.
Is it the lamp of Garður’s’ lighthouse that lured Arnalds to his sixth destination in as many weeks or the siren call of Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, lead vocalist for Of Monsters and Men? Spoiler alert: Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir. One hundred percent. It’s inside a lighthouse on Garður’s’ wind-battered waterfront where Arnalds records his penultimate island song, “Particles.” No surprise it’s as tender and vulnerable as the first five. Hilmarsdóttir’s voice carries a quiet power and is joined by violin, cello, and of course Arnalds on piano. “Particles” captures the same mood as the rest of the album but Hilmarsdóttir’s vocals perk up the ears and make this composition a little extra special.
In Baldvin’s video, many of the friends Arnalds made during his road trip gather to hear him play the last piece of this project, “Doria,” in Arnalds’ own hometown of Reykjavik. It’s week 7, and they form a half moon around the pianist on the floor of a concert hall in the only video in which he is center stage. Encompassed by the people who have inspired him along the way, he closes out Island Songs with pleasant piano loops. His perfect goodnight kiss.
In every Island Songs composition it’s clear this was a passion project for Arnalds. By choosing to honor the sacred relationship between people and their communities he has illustrated a versatile portrait of Iceland and the stories it has to tell. He doesn’t introduce us to rock stars or Iceland’s tourist attractions, but offers instead the chance to meet the people who serve their communities and treats us to sparse, serene music that mirrors the terrain he set out to explore. Island Songs is beauty, focus, and hushed Icelandic panoramas. It is superb.