Reverb can be a divisive effect. It’s a sound manipulation technique that’s certainly had its time in the limelight over the past few years. From the harsh plate reverb of garage rock, the shadowy hall reverb of ambient and instrumental, and the digitized reverb trails soaking the vocals and beats of laptop sample-churning and chillwave, artists often use it to make their music sound bigger, older, or distant. It’s often accused of being slathered on in post-production to cover up mistakes or squeezed into guitar signal lines to create the appearance of grandiosity.
But with Living Room Songs, Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds employs perhaps the most effective form of reverb: the kind naturally generated by simply mic’ing instruments in a medium-sized room. In this context, the subtle reverb that washes every note of Living Room Songs provides the environment; the listener truly feels as if they’re sitting in the same room as the performance. This kind of personal connection is difficult to achieve on a record (especially in today’s age of digital post-production), but Arnalds masters it in a way that creates a unique sense of intimacy.
Intimacy is, after all, at the heart of Living Room Songs. Arnalds first presented this seven-song collection by releasing them as YouTube videos one-by-one over the course of a week in October 2011: seven songs for seven days. Experiments with the free distribution of music have been at the center of debate over the internet’s role in the modern record industry, especially after Radiohead’s statement with In Rainbows, but few artists have pulled back the curtain as completely as Arnalds has done here. Not only were these songs free to download as he released them, but every moment of the live recording process was lovingly documented with video. Arnalds even gave a brief background on the genesis of each piece in the video descriptions, from how they were conceived to how he decided on arrangements.
Having experienced Living Room Songs first as an album, I have to say there’s something truly intriguing about going back and watching videos of those exact songs being recorded live. They’re shot cinematically, focusing on delicate details of the performance, Arnalds swaying as he presses piano keys, violinists’ hands rocking back and forth on strings to create vibrato. Perhaps the most charming touches are shots of the pieces of black tape stuck to keys of the synthesizer Arnalds had his sister play to accompany “Near Light,” possibly to remind her where to place her fingers. These small physical details perfectly complement the tiny moments audible on the recordings themselves — squeaks of strings, groans of foot pedals, the light rubbing of Arnalds’ piano’s hammers as they strike strings — lending a thick sense of realness and purity to the performances. Even more revealing are the shots of the recordings’ setting, Arnalds’ Reykjavík apartment. As he and his fellow musicians tip-toe through the songs, the camera pans around the apartment and captures bits and pieces of natural elements in the rooms that compose his personal life: books on a shelf, a ukulele propped against the window, stuffed animals, framed photos, dish soap on a kitchen counter, his unmade bed.
The personal and organic feel of Living Room Songs is a significant piece of progress for Arnalds, whose recent works …And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness and Found Songs, gained praise from critics for their masterfully detailed composition but underwent criticism for what some saw as over-control of the loops and melodies constructing the work. Some accused his exacting nature of extinguishing a bit of the spark of life from the final pieces. Living Rooms Songs sits comfortably at the other end of this continuum: intentionally loose, breathing, and seemingly casually assembled.
Some aspects of this evolution cause the few stumbling blocks of Living Room Songs. The commitment to looseness sometimes leads to lags in the rhythm of the album. Certain pieces, like “Film Credits,” are more than competent, but have a “cleaning out the vaults” feeling associated with them, as if they’re simply repackaging old melodies that had been kicking around Arnalds’ personal catalog rather than expressing an indispensable new statement. Later on the album, Arnalds’ sparse arrangements, combined with the lack of textural and instrumental differences between some of the works, lead to a few moments of samey-ness, most markedly with the contiguous songs “Ágúst” and “Lag fyrir Ömmu.” While undoubtedly beautiful on their own merit, they reveal Arnalds’ contentedness to remain in the same incredibly contemplative, deliberate gear for perhaps too long. While these very slow pieces, along with album opener “Fyrsta,” may strike some listeners (especially those not currently in the correct frame of mind for languishing mood-pieces) as overly leaden, the strength of these songs is that the correspondent emotional high water marks of “Near Light’s” driving synthesizers and “This Place is a Shelter’s” swelling strings are unique in their endearing subtlety. Rarely do such understated flourishes go so far, which is perhaps one of the points behind Arnalds’ new collection. His strength here is not what he forces toward the listener, but what he holds back.
Living Room Songs succeeds specifically because Arnalds does not try to build it into a masterwork. The songs do not squeeze out emotional force or sentimentality. They simply exist in their present state: beautifully documented (and, incidentally, free for fans to watch at their leisure) like a natural phenomenon Arnalds has had the courtesy to upload to YouTube. Simple, understated, and uniquely effective, these works serve as a warm gesture of appreciation and communication from an artist to his audience.