The music world continues to mourn the loss of Jóhann Jóhannsson, who just before his death was working on a remastered edition of his debut album, Englabörn. The album, accompanied by a second disc of new takes and remixes, was meant to be a celebration. Now it’s an elegy. But what a beautiful, heartbreaking, and fitting elegy it is. The artist’s family lent their blessing to the release, and thanks to them, we have the composer’s own voice to help us through our mourning.
Listening to Englabörn is different now. The initial release was completed in what Jóhannsson called “the apocalyptic autumn of 2001,” and bore witness to a time of international tumult. Now the aching sadness has risen to the surface. The first computerized syllables of “Odi et Amo” bring to mind “The Sun’s Gone Dim And The Sky’s Turned Black,” a song whose very name speaks of loss. “Ba” and “Karen byr til engil” seem like lullabies, a reminder that life goes on. The strings sing of sorrow, drenched in expression like the morning dew. Although they were always there, these are not the things we first heard in this music. Back in 2002, we were more entranced by the integration of orchestration and subtle electronics, its very lightness a contrast to public, pop-tinged efforts.
The new mastering has had a regenerative effect on the music. The sound is crisper, the volume louder, the poignancy thicker. If the album had ended there, we would have been satisfied, even enthralled. But Variations offers much more. Some tracks have been reworked by Jóhannsson, some by friends, including Ryuichi Sakamoto, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Alex Somers & A Winged Victory for the Sullen. The effect is that of a whole new album, referencing the old. When one plays Variations, one cannot help but think that the artist’s discography has come full circle, from humble beginnings to a collaboration with those he has influenced and those who have influenced him. This time the first major impression is not robotic words ~ those will come ~ but the tender piano notes of A Winged Victory for the Sullen, along with strings that sound as new as freshly minted angels.
During Víkingur Ólafsson’s solo piano version of the title track, one recalls Jóhannsson’s humility. Despite his fame, he remained approachable, winning people over through quietness and grace. To hear his music in this way is to marvel at the fact that he could return to the simplicity of the piano after so many widescreen ventures. It’s as if the artist is insisting that he remains himself, no matter what expectations others might put on him. When the Theatre of Voices enters, substituting voices for strings, the impact grows nearly unbearable. Appearing first at the album’s center and again at the end, their presence suggests a memorial service. Their hope is that of heaven, the implication that death is not the end. It’s comforting to imagine they are singing the artist home. (Richard Allen)