- Obnoxiously Sexual
- Another Life
- This Is Not the First Time
- This Is What You Get When You Mess with Love
Since debuting on the 4AD label as a big collective almost 20 years ago, GusGus is one of the biggest names in the Icelandic music scene of the last decades, with a big fan base all over the globe.
There’s a certain excitement that comes with the news that one of your favorite bands is releasing a new album. Maybe you go back through some of their old catalog to relive how great some of the previous stuff is, and there’s definitely a palpable anticipation that builds and builds as it gets closer and closer to the release date. Of course, if you’re like me there’s also another feeling. It starts way off in the background, so faint you don’t notice it at first. Then it’s like a subtle itch, and you just can’t quite figure out where to scratch to deal with it. And then it dawns on you. ”What if I think this album sucks?” Which would really disappointing. No, it would be worse than that. But it’s something we’ve all experienced at one time or another – that bummer trip of a new album either not meeting our hopes for it, or quite simply being a steaming pile of failure.
This is my second “new” GusGus album since we “discovered” the band at Iceland Airwaves in 2009, the same year they put out “24/7”. We quickly made our way through their old stuff and loved it, so I went through all these same feelings leading up to the release of “Arabian Horse in 2011. Thankfully that album more than met my expectations… it blew them away and became one of my all-time favorites, earning a spot on my personal “Desert Island Top 5.” But Mexico meant going through this all over again, but with even more doubt. I mean, how could it “raise the bar” over what I think is one of the best albums ever? Not that I expect it to, because that would be unfair and unreasonable. But what if I hate it? OK, that’s extreme. GusGus aren’t going to suddenly suck, or put out a collection of Jethro Tull covers. So I needn’t worry about that level of apocalypse. But what if I don’t really like it? So with all these things weighing on my obsessive mind, last night I went to iTunes and bought my download, then Holly and I set ourselves up on the sofa with some cocktails to listen to Mexico for the first time, just like we did three years ago when Arabian Horse came out. And I hoped.
Right from the opening of the first track, “Obnoxiously Sexual,” it was obvious that Mexico was going to sound different than its two predecessors. The lows were not as low and rich as I’d grown accustomed to after uncounted listens to Arabian Horse; it sounded more trebly, with beats that were more subdued in the mix to give more space to the mid and higher range sounds. Högni Egilsson, previously best known for his work fronting Hjaltalín, is back for his second GusGus album, and his vocals, while not as haunting as they were on Arabian Horse, still retain their sheer beautiful clarity. And his presence on that opening song gives Mexico a bit of carry-over familiarity, despite the change to the depth of the music.
By the second half of the album I remarked that I was starting to like it more and more, though Holly astutely pointed out, “probably because it sounds more like GusGus.” And she was right. Maybe there’s a hint of Polydistortion here, or something that reminds me a little of “David” off Attention. Or maybe I’m just grasping at straws and trying to make Mexico into something that it isn’t, which I shouldn’t try to do because it’s its own album. Maybe I need to be more like the subtitle to Dr. Strangelove. I need to stop worrying and learn to love Mexico.
And there’s a lot here to love, as I discovered by playing it four more times over the course of the day today. It doesn’t have that bottom-of-the-ocean deep end of Arabian Horse, but the deep parts are plenty deep enough that you can dive into them without worrying about hitting your head. Mixed in with the electronic beats and grooves are horns and strings that fit well into the mid range sound that seems to be emphasized on Mexico. There’s also a sorta-kinda new vocal “trick” at work on a few songs, starting with very echoey vocals before suddenly breaking into a very clear, clean verse, creating a sometimes startling contrast that captures your attention and almost forces you to listen while your ears adapt.
The second song, “Another Life,” gives an odd juxtaposition of the male and female vocals, which open with a male voice that is slowed waaaaayyyyy down… so slow I almost thought there was something wrong with the track for a minute. The effect gives the voice an other-wordly sound, like a bad trip when you’re sure you hear someone’s voice actually melt (<– DISCLAIMER – not that this ever happened to me… I mean, not as far as you know… OK, not as far as most of you know…). But then the female vocals come in, and the two play off of each other as the song progresses, and it’s almost surreal. “Sustain” sounds a bit more like a traditional GusGus song, especially after the roughly minute long introduction is replaced by the beat that drives the rest of the song. It’s the first time we get a full song of Daníel Ágúst‘s rich, silky voice, and the beats feel a bit deeper, like someone turned up the bass a bit. It’s a killer track with its slow groove, and sets the table for the remainder of the album, leading into the brilliant “Crossfade,” which is probably my favorite song on Mexico. Ágúst and Egilsson work off of each other beautifully, with Daníel’s highly echoed and modulated voice taking the lead and Egilsson providing the powerful, ethereal backing and harmony, moving into the lead only for the chorus. These two working together are so impressive that it’s difficult to describe. Birgir Thorarinsson definitely channelled his experience from working on John Grant’s 2013 Pale Green Ghosts. By the time the opening beats of “Airwaves” kick in next we’re in full-blown GusGus mode, a song that we’ve heard live as far back as 2012 at, not coincidentally, Iceland Airwaves. It took me a couple of listens to get there, but GusGus definitely nailed it with Mexico. This is one of those records that will probably make me break my own rule of not buying the same album in multiple formats, because I feel like I NEED to have this on vinyl. -Jeff Obermeyer