Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy
, the changes a decade can bring. Just ten years ago, a young quartet of Icelanders (ranging in ages fifteen to eighteen) was just seeding a venture that would spark adoration abroad and vilify praise at home. With their debut Yesterday Was Dramatic—Today Is Okay and breakout second album, 2002’s Finally We Are No One, múm would help, along with Sigur Rós, steward the shift in Iceland’s precocious music scene away from Björk and towards a bevy of talented young eccentrics.
These days, the status of Icelandic music as a fetish commodity for Anglo-Americans is unquestioned. múm’s influence, validating the collective Western boner for Homogenic, can’t be denied, but it’s not been without some trepidation. The twin Valtýsdóttir sisters have departed: Gyða for school and Kristín for New York, husband Avery Tare, and her Kria Brekken project. Now, only founding members Gunnar Örn Tynes and Örvar Þóreyjarson Smárason remain. Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy is múm’s fourth full-length and their first since 2004’s Summer Make Good. And for Go Go, Tynes and Smárason have sought a fresh start by cherry-picking a seven-member group and inviting in a number of collaborators.
But what has this makeover begotten? As the opening “Blessed Brambles” begins, a curious sense is built of… riff. múm was for so long bent on taking root around traditional song structures, but then overgrowing them and tearing them apart. Here, the group busies themselves with the particulars of structure, of choruses, of melodies and counter-melodies. First single “They Made Frogs Smoke ‘Til They Exploded” dips into the frenetic post 8-bit pop of a Dan Deacon: a frantic Information Age creation led along by a bubbly chorus of voices. But even as compelling as it is, “They Made Frogs” is nevertheless puzzlingly commonplace.
What seemed to take múm out of the ordinary was their affinity for organic repetition of electronic glitches, as if their sounds weren’t made by them, but by, say, some otherworldly insect colony or the whistle of the wind across the Arctic snowdrifts. That enigmatic incarnation of múm has been repurposed, with musical imagery conjured up as an adornment or adjunct to the works rather than BEING the works themselves. There’s still a shadow of glitch framing Go Go, lifting up its strongest works (“They Made Frogs,” “Marmalade Fires,” “Dancing Behind My Eyelids”) and bogging down a few aimless cuts. But where there are now horns and strings and anthems, there once lay a core of claustrophobic human weakness that this sweet, dumb brute of a record can’t even comprehend.
By comparison, Yesterday Was Dramatic—Today Is Okay felt almost necessarily incomplete, like a newborn music still unaware of its own identity. Betrothed to an ultimately tumultuous existence, the group used to wield these childlike airs to nudge at its own borders, both conceptual and geo-political. It’s with a certain sadness that one realizes that Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy is the result of a certain level of maturity, because the inhumanity that once made múm so intriguing now only embellishes this somewhat lesser group of actual “songs.” We can only parse this album as that of a brilliant group still trying desperately to reconcile its awkward youth into an identity, but only managing to hide behind a few ten-year old audio masks.