Of Monsters and Men, hailing from Iceland, is a group perhaps best known for the brassy soundscapes and fairy tale imagery of its 2011 debut album, My Head Is an Animal. But the band’s second album, Beneath the Skin, plays more like a melancholic Sylvia Plath narrative than a romantic Hans Christian Andersen story. In an interview with Rolling Stone, lead singer and guitarist Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdottir stated that Beneath the Skin was the polar opposite of the band’s first album. While that may be an overstatement, it is certainly true that if listeners are expecting a carbon copy of My Head Is an Animal, they will be surprised by Beneath the Skin.
Lyrically, Of Monsters and Men doesn’t stray from the first album’s cryptic metaphors — “Cage me like an animal / A crown with gems and gold / Eat me like a cannibal / Chase the neon throne” (in “Human”) — but the marked and welcome change is in the intimacy of the lyrics. Hilmarsdottir and co-singer and guitarist Ragnar Porhallsson sing of broken relationships and a loss of identity — a far cry from the surrealism that riddled My Head Is an Animal. “So I take off my face / Because it reminds me of how it all went wrong / And I pull out my tongue / Because it reminds me how it all went wrong,” Hilmarsdottir softly croons in “Organs,” the most emotionally raw and expressive song on the album.
In My Head Is an Animal, Of Monsters and Men was recognized for its folk sound, drawing comparisons with the likes of the Lumineers and Mumford and Sons. Although the first album’s bouncy instrumentals are present in the greater part of Beneath the Skin, the band leaves behind its minimalist production. Instead, the group has opted for a more subtly intricate sound, with synth sounds layered over moody acoustics and wistful keyboard. But the band is not at its best with these faberge soundscapes or the constant percussive booming of “Black Water.” Instead, the album’s most enjoyable tracks are the muted, shy melodies of “Organs” and “Thousand Eyes”.
Although Of Monsters and Men deserves recognition for attempting to change its formula for success, the band still clings to it in times of need, creating a discordant album that would’ve been more comprehensive and more interesting had the group dared to throw the formula away. Listeners are given a taste of what could have been with the best song of the album, “Organs,” but the majority of the Beneath the Skin remains lackluster.
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