Music Review: Daniel Agust - Swallowed A Star
David R Perry
February 13, 2007
Iceland is an isolated island of a country, set adrift off the northwestern edges of Europe. There are about 300,000 people in this country that is roughly the size of the state of Kentucky. Perhaps it's the isolation, or perhaps it's the low density of souls, but everyone there seems to be involved in holing themselves up long enough to make really interesting music.
The Icelandic music scene really came to prominence in the 1980s with the emergence of The Sugarcubes, led by pre-solo artist Björk. Since then we've had the pleasure of also experiencing Björk, Gus Gus, Sigur Ros, Mum, and a slew of other artists who seem gloriously unaffected by the popular music trends running rampant in the rest of the world.
Ex-Gus Gus frontman Daniel Agust is one of the latest to emerge from this cultural collective, and in what is becoming typical Icelandic fashion, has created an intriguing and unique album. Swallowed A Star is his first effort as a solo artist, and is quite a departure from his previous band's blend of house, downtempo, and hipster lounge music. Instead of exploring the various synthesized clubs of the city, Agust seems to be taking a very leisurely stroll in the woods, as well as channeling a much more introspective artistic voice.
Swallowed A Star will probably appeal most to fans of later Talk Talk, as well as some of Mum's output. Arrangement leans more on the sparse side of things, and instrumentation is focused more on live sounds, although augmented by various electronic effects. It's not surprising through the course of the album to find a small chamber ensemble of strings and winds taking the place of a traditional 'band'. This also serves the mood of the music better, as it is much more organic in nature.
It's difficult to pull out certain tracks over others, as the whole point of this style is the journey as a whole and not the pit-stop of a particular song. In fact, the opening song 'Someone Swallowed A Star' sounds more like a mournful opening of a musical or play than for a pop album. But that's also how most of the album unfolds, through small vignettes of story as opposed to bold declaration. The gentle lyric sweetness of 'The Gray' could be about young love, while the instrumental 'Intersection' might be better seen as an emotional (-less?) Intermission. But even as you get to the slightly more buoyant and upbeat 'If You Leave Me Now', you have a sneaky suspicion that things will turn out alright for him/them/us.
The songwriting itself is very singer-songwriter oriented, and comparisons to some of Nick Drake's work wouldn't be out of order. What Agust does that is unique, however, is to reign in all these diverse elements (singer-songwriter content, art-deco arrangements) into a cohesive way of thinking. He doesn't just dabble in this particular world of sound, he is completely immersed in it.
The question is, do we as listeners even allow ourselves to get immersed in music anymore? It often seems that many people's interest in music extends no further than what a commercial or a ringtune can do for them. Has our attention span been swallowed? Not for all of us, and I hope not for you. But my guess is that if you're this far into a music review for an Icelandic troubadour, you will be most pleased with Swallowed A Star.