As far back as their 2001 debut, Yesterday Was Dramatic, Today Is Okay, experimental Icelandic collective Múm has been preoccupied with contrast and contradiction. The title of the band’s sixth album, Smilewound, which seems to reference an especially devious form of torture employed by the Scottish mafia (and introduced to the global masses by way of The Dark Knight and myriad other pop media), is no exception. The deceptively titled “Time to Scream and Shout” is a gentle, burbling lullaby, things are not what they seem on the confessional “The Colorful Stabwound,” and lyrics like “Forget me now” are, naturally, immediately followed by appeals to “remember me.”
The music itself juxtaposes an airy, relaxed atmosphere and angelic-sounding vocals with macabre, if not outright violent, imagery. A volatile spirit, like that of a capricious teenage girl, simmers beneath the upbeat and sparkly exterior of the house-y “When Girls Collide,” which gradually builds to the resounding refrain, “It’s time to break this bloody spell/It’s time to blow shit up to hell.” And it’s hard to tell if lyrics like “Slow down so I can catch you,” from the Vespertine-esque “Slow Down,” is a romantic gesture or just creepy, while the delivery of a line from the guitar-driven “One Smile” hovers precariously between a vow of devotion and a thinly veiled threat: “One smile…for the two of us.”
Smilewound doesn’t just mark the return of founding member Gyða Valtýsdóttir, but also a notable move toward more accessible fare. The band still intertwines complex melodies with glitchy basslines and intricate percussive parts, like the nimble drum n’ bass of “The Colorful Stabwound,” but the album is easily Múm’s most commercial to date. The pensive, Sigur Rós-style piano motif of “Underwater Snow” is ultimately fleeting, obscured as it is by a chunky beat and a playful, descending synth melody; the opening track, “Toothwheels,” features a similar, distorted hip-hop beat that sounds like it was lifted from a Timbaland track. Pop diva Kylie Minogue might seem like an odd match for Múm, but her breathless wisp of a voice fits perfectly with the fluttery drum programming and digital droplets of “Whistle,” a rumination on the peculiar relationship between girls featured in last year’s Jack and Diane. The band is still pushing the envelope of pop music, particularly lyrically (“I bleed like a pig…I chew like a cannibal,” Minogue coos), but for the first time in years, they’ve served up something we can really sink our teeth into.