What’s the next step for an artist after becoming a teenaged global phenomenon? For Gabríel Ólafs, the answer is to become a grown-up global phenomenon. This was also the path taken by Ólafur Arnalds, and we suspect his younger Icelandic counterpart may follow his trajectory as well. Absent Minded was a success on its own in 2019, and was followed by an album of reworks by artists such as Hugar, Bing & Ruth and Masayoshi Fujita, while this year’s Solon Islandus travels in a quieter direction with an accompanying selection of piano versions.
The album is a tribute to the “artistic spirit of Iceland,” in particular the life and work of famed poet Davíð Stefánsson, whose writings grace the recording in a manner reminiscent of Arnald’s Island Songs. While the album is decorated with Stefánsson’s poetry, the title is taken from his only novel. The music unfurls slowly, like the flowing dyes of lead videos “The Lily” and “Memory,” chords and colors expanding like eyedrops, like sunbursts, like galaxies. Opening track “Streymir” (flow or stream) embodies this principle, building from a soft base of piano and strings to become a creature that tugs at the emotions. The choir sings; the heart tilts. Blueness shines on creek and dale.
How might one categorize the life of a never-married librarian? Ólafs conveys an undercurrent of loneliness, along with great beauty. Surrounded by literature and like-minded visitors, Stefánsson was inspired to write of characters saved by the kindness of others. The title track expands to the cold expanse of water surrounding Iceland before retracting to the vast uninhabited center. Even as a child, the poet felt a kinship with the raven, as portrayed in “Brestur” and closer “The Caw” ~ confined to his bed, he imagined soaring through the winter skies.
A cinematic thread runs through the album as well, especially apparent in the finale of “Hind,” as life and death collide in a lonely glade. Ólafs has obviously inherited Stefánsson’s romanticism. A tiny couplet of tracks, “Kyndir” and “Aska,” also refers to ashes, the former recalling a woman who writes poems in ashes, the latter a reference to volcanic debris. But while ashes represent endings, they also represent rebirth, found in Icelandic folklore as well as the legend of the phoenix. Ólafs straddles the thin line between Ragnarok and recreation. As Stefánsson writes:
Though cold the wind may blow, and days be years,
I’ll know you lost your way by the right route
and will be mine in prayer, in song and tears.