There must be something in the cold Icelandic water that lets loose a melody in the soul of each blonde, doe-eyed citizen. I haven’t had the pleasure of visiting the sparsely populated island southeast of that great block of ice known as Greenland, a stone’s throw away from mainland Europe, but how else does one explain the consistent export of successful acts from the small water-bound nation? The country’s capital, Reykjavík, is home to fewer than 120,000 people, yet somehow its musicians consistently find a way of reaching the American airwaves—and staying there.
Björk and Sigur Rós, both Icelandic, have similarly haunting sounds and have enjoyed successful international careers far away from their snowy origins. It may have once been easy to write these acts off as a spectacles of indie music: Jónsi, the mastermind behind Sigur Rós, sings most of his songs in “Hopelandic,” a non-literal language created by the band; and Björk is just as well known for having worn a swan dress and for the various SNL impersonations of her as she is for her unique and complex vocal style. It may have once been easy to write off Icelandic music as an oddity, but with the recent and meteoric rise of the Icelandic band Of Monsters and Men, whose hit song “Little Talks” has recently dominated the airwaves, we’ll just have to accept the tiny island as the indie music mecca that it is.
Formed only two years ago, Of Monsters and Men’s debut album My Head is an Animal is accessible yet unique and nostalgic with an underlying pop feel. The American public has taken the bait; the album has scraped the top of the alternative charts for months and the band’s tour is full of sold out shows and devoted fans. The overwhelming popularity has visibly surprised the band’s six members. As a sold-out Orpheum Theater cheered their arrival, Nanna, one of OMAM’s two lead singers, seemed taken aback with bewildered elation. “Oh my God, this is awesome!” she called out over the loudspeaker, giggling as the crowd roared back at her. It seems as though the band vacillates fluidly between showing an endearingly giddy lack of experience and showcasing a practiced and finely tuned musicianship that is uncommon in young bands.
To say OMAM’s live show sounds like their album would be a dismissal of their craft. Expertly interacting with the crowd in accented, yet fluid English, Nanna and Ragnar (“Raggi”) sing sweetly and simply about what it is to live and to be young. It is perhaps their simple declarations that connect them so tightly to their audience; absent is the practiced swagger of the typical Brooklyn band, and what remains are six young people committed to their craft and overcome with happiness to be doing what they love. In the song From Finner, the chorus booms on the heels of the drum: “And we are far from home, but we’re so happy/Far from home all alone, but we’re so happy.”
Their lyrics and on-stage persona are emblematic of a group of kids doing what they love, new to the convention of celebrity and pop-stardom. As they performed “Little Talks” the band saw a billowing Icelandic flag in the crowd and beckoned for the owner to climb onstage. Jumping wildly with their compatriot, both singers hugged the man before letting event staff whisk him off stage. “That was great,” professes Raggi, putting a hand over his heart, tying the flag onto his mic stand before continuing the concert.
It is the real moments in a show that ingratiate a band to its audience, and from the theater’s velvet seats you can viscerally feel the sentimental ache for a home many miles away coupled with the wide smile that gives away their jubilation at having arrived at center stage. As the slow, melodic guitar started “Yellow Light,” the final song of the encore, Nanna, whispered a confession into the exuberant sea of people. “This is actually our last song,” she said, referencing the white lie all musicians tell before an encore set. “The other one was a lie. This is it.”