Of Monsters and Men are getting bigger and barer on its sophomore album: Beneath The Skin, due out June 9, amplifies the sound of the Icelandic folk-rock group’s debut My Head Is an Animal while also peppering its anthems with more revealing lyrical passages. Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson, who shares lead vocal and guitar duties with Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, says that writing a more intimate record was a natural process for the band, which had grown closer while touring exhaustively behind their first album.
“For the first album, being from Iceland, you could feel in the lyrics that we wanted to go out and explore,” says Þórhallsson. “Because we’ve toured for two years, I think you can hear in this album that we’re going more inwards. We’re writing more about us instead of what’s out there. It’s much more personal.”
After Of Monsters and Men won a nationwide battle of the bands competition in Iceland, debut album My Head Is An Animal became a surprise international success upon its 2011 release, with the group earning Arcade Fire comparisons while also unintentionally being lumped in with folk revivalists like Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers. Led by “Little Talks,” a cheery pop track that peaked at No. 20 on the Hot 100 chart, My Head Is An Animal has sold 1.1 million copies to date according to Nielsen Music and led Of Monsters and Men to major festivals around the globe.
“We never thought anything like this would ever happen — you never think your music is going to go out there at this speed,” confesses Þórhallsson. After touring for My Head Is An Animal ended in late 2013, the band members took a short break to work out song ideas individually and came back together early last year.
“The album is heavier, both lyrically and musically,” adds Þórhallsson. “I was in Denmark when I wrote some of [the new songs], and when we put our ideas together, we all kind of had a similar sound in mind. It was weird, in a way.”
Indeed, lead single “Crystals” (which moves up to No. 13 on this week’s Alternative Songs chart) previews the colossal scope of Beneath The Skin, which was recorded with co-producer Rich Costey in Iceland and Los Angeles. Songs like “Wolves Without Teeth” are highlighted by leaden percussion and wiry guitar stabs that pull back to reveal the group’s signature vocal harmonies. Meanwhile, “Organs” is perhaps the most emotionally bare song the band has ever written, a fragile piano ballad with sloping cellos and lines like “I cough up my lungs, ’cause they remind me how it all went wrong/But I leave in my heart, cause I don’t want to stay in the dark.”
“Last time around, [the band members] were really good friends but getting to know each other — now we really know each other very well,” says Þórhallsson. “For us to open up to each other and talk about things that are personal was definitely hard, but I think it also makes us write better lyrics if we’re honest.”
Of Monsters and Men will kick off a North American tour previewing the new album on May 4 in Toronto, and is scheduled to perform at festivals in the U.S., Europe, Australia and Japan this summer. The lyric video to “Crystals,” starring Icelandic actor-comedian Siggi Sigurjóns, has 1.8 million YouTube views, and Þórhallsson says that more fun promotional items will be dropping in the coming weeks.
“On the last album cycle, we were always growing while we were touring, so we were always coming up with ideas at the last minute and putting them together,” he says. “This time, we can plan what we want to do. The lyric videos, we’re gonna have more of them out there. It’s just more organized this time around, which is very nice.”