Published January 14, 2013
Over the years, Hjaltalín have enjoyed a large amount of respect and success on the back of their two albums, 2007’s ‘Sleepdrunk Sessions’ and 2010’s ‘Terminal.’ Still, I can honestly say that I’ve never really loved Hjaltalín. Their music seemed to wallow in delusions of cinematic grandeur, and for all its incessant art-school bombast it had precisely nothing of substance that grabbed you and stayed with you afterwards. It’s no coincidence that the song they were best known for was their cover of Páll Óskar’s “Þú komst við hjartað í mér.”
But here’s the thing—since ‘Terminal,’ Hjaltalín seem to have gone away and worked out what it is that they want to represent with their music. And it shows with their new album, ‘Enter 4.’ Not only have they made Grapevine’s Best Icelandic album in 2012 by a country mile, but they’ve also created what is probably one of the most searingly bleak and honest records from an Icelandic group in what feels like…forever?
From beginning to end, there’s a terrible sadness to ‘Enter 4’ that clings to every nook and cranny of the album. Its world seems to be one of missed chances, a longing from afar, or a love that’s been lost or dashed. At the heart of all this, like a rich seam of ore, is the theme of loneliness. While other albums in 2012 have alluded, or claimed, to explore the concept of loneliness, none have managed like ‘Enter 4’ to convey the sheer ache that occurs within every person that experiences it.
When listening to ‘Enter 4,’ you encounter the album’s gallery of damaged individuals involved in unhealthy situations as they desperately try to achieve some meaningful form of human contact. Even Lucifer himself is reduced to finding “Love with myself/So someone could love me back,” after being cast out from heaven on “Lucifer/He Felt Like A Woman.” The song “Myself” describes transgressive, yet mechanical and empty hook-ups with strangers, while “We,” tells of a couple whose relationship has run out of love but still stay together (“Can’t you see you’re hurting me/Why don’t you push me away?” Sigríður cries, only for Högni to coldly reply, “Usurper, that’s what you are”). But the most uncomfortable moment on ‘Enter 4’ is the paraphilia displayed by Sigríður’s character on “Forever Someone Else.” As she erotically breathes the lines “I wanna be touched/I wanna be found/I wanna be seen/ I just want you to hit me/Don’t wait/Just hit me,” the effect is as sensual as it is unsettling, more Michael Haneke than Richard Curtis.
These themes of loneliness have seeped directly into the music itself. From the shuffling soul beat and deadened bass of the opening moments of “Lucifer,” this is music that resides in the quiet and space of the twilight hour. Gone are the fussy, surperflous melody lines that cluttered up their previous albums. In their place, their instruments develop a deep synthesis of textures, layers, and an actual groove, with the drums and bass of Axel Haraldsson and Guðmundur Óskar pinning everything together.
There are still the flourishes of the old Hjaltalín with the appearance of Högni and Viktor Árnason’s string arrangements, but even here they show a more restrained, uncomplicated beauty. This restraint allows the vocals of Sigríður and Högni to rise to the fore. While their two styles are drastically different (the soft caramel tones of Sigríður against the cracked raggedness of Högni), they manage to complement each other brilliantly.
The music on ‘Enter 4’ is not so much minimal as it is barren. The songs feel pulled apart and kept distant from each other, as if the band itself were playing in separate corners of a very large room. Such a sound allows you to explore the gaps and distance within the sounds, with the result being each listen brings up further little discoveries. This approach also allows for moments of eerie quietness that can build to truly monumental proportions, such as the primal sturm of “I Feel You,” or the crashing apex of “We,” where you actually find your heart runs just that little bit faster.
People have noted Högni’s current membership with GusGus as an influence on ‘Enter 4,’ mostly due to the amount of electronic processing evident in the music, but personally I don’t hear it that much. I actually think the album shares a closer sonic bond with the analogue/digital mesh of Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows,’ and the end-of-the-line soul from late era Gil Scott Heron and Bobby Womack.
No other album in 2012 has affected me on such a visceral level in the way that ‘Enter 4’ has. In terms of the quality of music and songwriting, it’s such a marked step up from their old stuff as to render Hjaltalín right now as a new band, completely divorced from their old music. It might seem that this album, from reading this review anyway, is rather melancholy, but I really don’t think it is. It’s just that ‘Enter 4’ talks about themes that affect us all in an open and honest way that is actually rather life affirming. Since I received my copy a month ago, I’ve pretty much played it every day, to the point where my .mp3 version is exhibiting signs of bitrot. When Högni repeatedly lets out the wounded cries of “I FEEL!” as he does on “We,” you really feel it. Name another piece of music from 2012 that makes you feel like that and I will call you a liar.