Should some intrepid director make a movie out of My Head Is an Animal, the 2011 debut from Icelandic arena-folk adventurers Of Monsters and Men, he or she will need lots of wildlife wranglers and CGI but only a handful of actual actors. A surprise smash that has sold 1.1 million copies, according to Nielsen Music, My Head hinged on mythical storytelling. When leaders Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdottir and Ragnar Þorhallsson sang of birds and bees, it wasn’t sexual — they were describing the various creatures populating their windswept, swollen-hearted fairy-tale anthems.
After several years of steady touring, Hilmarsdottir, Þorhallsson and their three bandmates say they went into new album Beneath the Skin as closer friends, and have described their sophomore effort as more personal and introspective. Sure enough, track two is called “Human”: “Breathe in, breathe out,” urges Þorhallsson, heavy guitars and robust “oh-oh” vocals building behind him. “Let the human in.” But throughout Beneath the Skin — recorded with producer Rich Costey (Muse, Death Cab for Cutie) in Iceland and Los Angeles — the group doesn’t exactly take that advice. If the songs deal with interpersonal relationships, they’re still oblique, and filled with references to nature, myths and anatomy. On “Hunger” and “Wolves Without Teeth” — cryptic love songs built on moody guitars and keyboards and rolling tom-tom beats — Hilmarsdottir and Þorhallsson allude to both drowning and being eaten by wolves.
As one may have guessed, the album pushes the more melancholic aspects of the band’s first LP to the fore. In the absence of brassy stompers like breakthrough hit “Little Talks,” which earned the group comparisons to Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers, relief arrives on lead single “Crystals” and the standout “Empire” — gripping rock songs coursing with optimism.
“Empire” is about how, sure, rain is depressing, but rain makes rivers, and rivers lead to great things. It could be the theme song for this meditative, less explosive sequel to a blockbuster. The band hasn’t lost its sense of wonder — it’s just seeing the world through a more realistic lens.
This story originally appeared in the June 20 issue of Billboard.