Högni Two Trains

[Erased Tapes; 2017]

Styles: neo-R&B, Icelandic men’s choruses, computers that sound like trains
Others: GusGus, James Blake, Karlakórinn Heimir

Trains simply signify too much. Simultaneously the symbol of technology as self-evident telos and the symbol of the consequences of such blind teleology, trains hold the promise of modernity in dialectical tension with its failure. Iceland’s use of trains in its move toward modernity was relatively short-lived. Between 1913 and 1917, two locomotives, Pionér and Minør, carried stone and gravel across the country to help build the Reykjavík harbor. They were retired in 1928, and Pionér is now preserved in the Árbær Museum while Minør is on exhibit at the harbor.

For Two Trains, the Icelandic singer-songwriter Högni resurrects the memory of Pionér and Minør. The press release for the album laments Iceland’s near-miss with technologized modernity: the trains now “only serve to remind us of the grandeur of a bygone future. They are the only trains ever to have graced the Icelandic landscape.” Of course, the future that trains were put in service to elsewhere was anything but grand, and landscapes are generally marred, rather than graced, by railways and the incursion of industrialization that they represent. Not to visit the sins of a publicist on the head of the artist, but this unproblematic language is also indicative of Högni’s use of the railroad-as-symbol. This is, at base, a breakup album, and the stalled Pionér and Minør are made to serve as symbols of Högni’s stalled romance. Never mind the reality of the railroad; Högni attempts to limit his metaphor within the boundaries of personal experience. But the intimate language of the lyrics can’t contain the slippages in signification inherent in the world-historical context of this larger conceit.

Electronics and other instruments evoke the clanging and clattering of the locomotive throughout Two Trains. Traditional Icelandic men’s choral music is then overlaid, sometimes with startling results. Men’s choruses in Iceland are intimately linked with the landscape, and it’s easy to imagine this juxtaposition in the Icelandic-language tracks (like lead single “Komdu Með”) as a rebuke to an encroaching technology that will irreversibly alter it. However, elsewhere on the album it becomes clear that such effects are constrained to the personal. In “Break Up,” Högni follows the description of a couple’s breakup with an invitation to “Trust in me, and I will trust in you/ Trust in me/ Our days will be forever new.” During the rest of the track, propulsive piano and drum, again reminiscent of a train engine, gradually overtake an uplifting string section and replace it with foreboding percussive minor chords. If this train is read as foreshadowing a dysphoric futurity, it is only that of another failed romance.

It’s not impossible to orient individual experience in relation to a large-scale system like the railway. Steve Reich’s Different Trains does so to devastating effect. But to reduce the impact of such systems to the level of personal romance risks an excess of signification at the level of the metaphor’s figure that makes it incommensurate with its ground. Two Trains could be pared down to a gorgeous EP: “Andaðu” and “Óveðursský,” for example, are stunning in their simplicity, summoning the majesty of the Icelandic landscape solely through the use of voice. Any resultant technological or ecological critique is undercut, though, when these tracks are made to sit uncomfortably next to the maudlin lyrics of “Shed Your Skin” and “Parallel.” The scale unaccountably shrinks from one track to another, and the listener is left to wonder how the parallel tracks of a country’s halted transportation revolution and a man’s halted relationship are ever meant to converge.

Most Read