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Review: Of Monsters and Men’s Fever Dream Veers Into Bland Pop Terrain

The album streamlines the band’s roughhewn sound into a waxy, bland pop.

Fever Dream
Photo: Meredith Truax

Of Monsters and Men’s sophomore effort, Beneath the Skin, felt like a qualitative extension of the band’s 2012 debut, My Head Is an Animal, hewing closely to that album’s densely layered, acoustic-driven instrumentation and the distinctive vocal harmonies of Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Thorhallsson. With Fever Dream, however, the Icelandic quintet emerges from a four-year break with a sound that veers radically from the flannel-textured indie-folk they established on those first two releases.

From Hilmarsdóttir’s opening “Hey!,” “Alligator” lunges into a full-bodied romp that invokes the feisty vigor of early Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Throughout, bright electric guitar wails glide over chunky bass riffs and tympanic drumming as she belts out, “Wake me up, I’m fever dreaming!” The arena-ready punchiness of “Alligator” makes the track a promising first impression that, inexplicably, the rest of the album seems determined to walk back.

“You think you know me, but do you really?” Thorhallsson croons on “Ahay,” and for listeners surprised by the song’s plaintive piano tones, finger snaps, and electronic pops, his question is a fair one. Very little on Fever Dream tethers Of Monsters and Men to their prior work, as the band has streamlined its roughhewn sound into a waxy, bland pop that would feel more at home playing in an H&M store than in the Icelandic backcountry. Gone are the mythological themes that infused their previous songs, and glossed over is the elemental imagery that, in the past, conjured lush sylvan mountainsides and vaulted skies. The fireside warmth that made songs like “Dirty Paws” and “Human” feel so intimate has dissipated in favor of squeaky-clean production, leaving the album feeling generic and non-specific.

“Ahay” is admittedly infectious, and Hilmarsdóttir and Thorhallsson’s melodic duet on “Sleepwalker” exudes a sweet, hand-drifting-out-the-window dreaminess. But with little more than beefy basslines to supply them any personality, tracks like “Vulture, Vulture” and “Wars” feel like lackluster impersonations of Depeche Mode-esque pop, with an over-dependence on run-of-the-mill ‘80s synths. The tremulous vocals of Fever Dream’s first single, “Wild Roses,” try to mimic the haunting delicacy of the band’s 2015 single “I of the Storm” from Beneath the Skin, but a chorus saturated by heavy drums and clubby dance beats smothers the track’s airy quiet. Bass-drum thumps and electronic flourishes similarly attempt to give a pulse to the penultimate track, “Under a Dome,” but by the time it fuzzes out into Thorhallsson’s heavily Auto-Tuned vocals, even the song seems bored with itself.

Despite its bombast and awkward inconsistencies, though, the album displays a keen attention to vocal nuances. Never before has Hilmarsdóttir taken such full possession of her range, and she shows no hesitation in swinging between throaty growls and anthemic screams. On songs like “Róróró” and “Waiting for the Snow,” she fleshes out the peeled-back instrumentation with near-whisper fragility and heartbreaking tenderness. In a rare moment for the album, the combination of subtle electronic beeps and slight touches of Auto-Tune on the latter track evoke a strikingly visceral scene of self-reflection and the chill ache of regret.

Thorhallsson, too, tests the limits of his husky lower register, stoking the slow burn of “Stuck in Gravity” into a soaring, soothing ballad. But for all his insistence in the song’s outro that his “head is still an animal,” it’ll take more than a contrived allusion to the past to recover a sense of the cohesion and depth that Of Monsters and Men has jettisoned on Fever Dream. For a group whose songs typically brim with rustic intimacy and traverse the wild, sprawling landscapes of both the head and heart, their latest feels like it sold off those land rights and opted for the lurid electric shimmer of the city.

Label: Republic Release Date: July 26, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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