For an album with no lyrics, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Fordlandia certainly has a lot of things to say. Narrative grandeur abounds: a Fitzcarraldo-like Brazilian jungle scene, a 19th-century poet mourning a fallen god, an unlucky rocket scientist, the mysterious work of a deformed German physicist. Lumped together, these ideas, expressed in the song titles and exhaustive track-by-track notes which Jóhannsson provides online, sound like the stuff of a Pynchon novel or a master’s course, a full conceptual plate that would make the album intimidating if the music wasn’t just as beautiful even without its ideas. Jóhannsson’s songs are majestic in their simplicity.
Jóhannsson seems to realize that the themes he’s developing, which center around failed utopias, are not necessary for the album to work and keeps them from being pounded into our heads, if that would even be possible considering his delicate style of icy Scandinavian ambiance. Fordlandia plays like a good soundtrack, not too hungry for our attention, quiet and unassuming, with sections that dip into a nearly ethereal softness. This is fitting, considering Jóhannsson’s previous work in film scoring, and he’s expertly created a tapestry that tightly links 11 tracks over more than an hour. The opening title track lasts nearly 14 minutes and, as Jóhannsson modestly mentions in the album notes, ends with a “5-minute long continuous ritardando, quite possibly the longest one ever committed to record—should anyone care!”
This is all played with an admirable earnestness that buoys even some of the album’s borderline-cheesy material. Such moments are rare, however, and for the most part Fordlandia is sterling, the kind of album that allows you to tune out and absorb the entire thing passively. “The Great God Pan Is Dead” lingers on achingly slow female chants swathed in chilly synth waves, while “How We Left Fordlandia” lets its circling strings unspool for eight minutes before crashing to a crescendo halfway through. The idea of Fordlandia (a disastrous small-town America-inspired Brazilian colony created by Henry Ford, which Jóhannsson lingers on in his notes) as a giant symbolic broken dream is there, but you’d be hard pressed to find it if you weren’t listening for it.
In this way, the ideas of Fordlandia remain frozen deep in the album’s icy veneer, and while Jóhannsson is effusive in talking about them, he really wants us to discover them for ourselves, either accepting the album as a sensory experience or delving into its deeper sections on our own. In the end, the album is a fascinating musical thesis that can function with or without its brain intact.