The amount of angst I felt as I cued up Jónsi’s Go for the first time was, in retrospect, totally inappropriate. But I imagine I’m not the only Sigur Rós fan to approach the album with anxiety, maybe even a little resentment. Wasn’t it good enough for Jónsi to front one of the most beloved and bizarrely successful rock acts of the last decade? Has “indefinite hiatus” ever meant anything other than a slow-motion breakup? Had Iceland’s art-rock champions somehow been Yoko-Ono’d by Jónsi’s boyfriend/collaborator, Alex Somers?
All conspiratorial bitterness aside, it feels important to acknowledge the high likelihood that, with Go, the mighty Sigur Rós has been laid to rest for good. But Jónsi has given us something better than a consolation prize. Go is a splendid, vibrant, and ultimately necessary record—necessary because it gives Jónsi the chance to channel Sigur Rós’s strengths (shifting layers of diverse instruments, dynamic composition, and a meticulous appreciation for detail) in blissful new directions. While it’s not difficult to draw a line from the poppier numbers on Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust (“Gobbledigook” and “Inní mér syngur vitleysingur” are this album’s closest predicates), Go is simply too bright a record to have ever belonged in the Sigur Rós discography; the rushing strings and woodwinds on “Around Us” and “Animal Arithmetic” are so radiant that they would have melted the band’s glacial soundscapes on contact. Where Sigur Rós’s albums often glowered, Go simply glows.
For me, it was only two minutes in, when Jónsi melts into the breathtaking chorus of “Go Do,” that any residual bitterness over the Sigur Rós bust-up was completely dissolved. But there’s plenty here for the less easily converted, and besides, longtime fans who can stomach Jónsi’s newly sugary demeanor will find that he hasn’t left them wholly stranded; Go may eschew the cinematic heft of vintage Sigur Rós, but that doesn’t mean it’s all Saturday morning cartoons either. “Tornado” and “Sinking Friendships” slowly swell toward their climaxes like and Takk…-era ballads rendered in miniature, and atmospheric cuts like “Kolniður” and “Grow Til Tall” add welcome sonic and emotional complexity. Nine tracks of unabashed gushing would have been hard to take, and Jónsi’s Technicolor sunshine sounds better when it has some dark clouds to break through.
That said, the record does end on a disappointingly dour note. “Hengilás” is a spare and moody sendoff that feels wrong for such an ebullient album. And in its uncanny resemblance to Ágætis Byrjun’s closer, “Avalon,” it’s the only track that seems like a calculated pander to Sigur Rós diehards.
But Go’s biggest surprise—that shouldn’t really be a surprise—is Jónsi’s remarkable vocal performances. Capable of holding it’s own against Ágætis Byrjun’s dense guitar drone and Takk…’s lush orchestral movements, his evocative falsetto proved time and again to be Sigur Rós’s most compelling instrument. But something very nearly revelatory about hearing that voice leap nimbly from hook to hook on “Boy Lilikoi” or layered against itself on “Animal Arithmetic.” Jónsi rarely resorts to the howls and held notes that used to be his calling card; across the album, he sounds energized as he races Nico Muhly’s lively arrangements and his own brisk, percussive backdrops. For a talented artist striking out in a new direction, energized is exactly the right way to sound. Even if the era of Sigur Rós is indeed over, Jónsi’s solo career contains all the exhilarating promise that a new beginning should.