There are dozens of reasons why Jón Þór Birgisson, better known as Jónsi, is a memorable character. His frontmanning legendary post-rock band Sigur Rós aside, he is Icelandic, blind in one eye, wears a distinctive fauxhawk/cowlick hairstyle, and tends to dress like a character from Final Fantasy, to name a few. In 2010, with his band on a baby-related hiatus that seems now about to end with the release of live album/concert dvd Inni, Jónsi set out to deliver his debut solo album Go, which was like a dancier, even-more-upbeat-even-though-you-thought-it-was-impossible take on Sigur Rós’s 2008 mouthful of an album, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust. A miscellaneous track or two aside, We Bought a Zoo is his first release since then, and the soundtrack/score for the Cameron Crowe film is about what you’d expect from a pairing of the two.
Listen to Go or any of Sigur Rós’s albums and you’ll notice that a common trend is for songs to be bookended by beautiful, tinkling pieces of ambient sounds. Jónsi and his boyfriend Alex expanded upon that idea with their ambient recond Riceboy Sleeps, and if you’re a fan of any of the above, you will enjoy the instrumental passages We Bought a Zoo has to offer. (Though not always instrumental in the technical sense, Jónsi has always used his voice more as another instrument than anything, especially given his propensity to sing the most elegant take on scat you’ve ever heard.) Pieces such as Snærisendar delight in their beauty, and fill your head with images of suns rising on pensive, snowladen landscapes. They may not bring anything to the table that you couldn’t get from the projects mentioned earlier, but damned if they aren’t pretty.
The less positive news is in the field of the more conventional songs. The soundtrack uses three tracks from Go, which are all fantastic, as well as Hoppípolla, which only the least cynical of types can claim not to have at least become somewhat tired of yet. Only two originals are brought to the table by Jónsi: Ævin Endar and Gathering Stories. Unfortunately, rather than recapturing any of the manic happiness or laid-back beauty of Go, they come off as overwrought, overbearing, and turgrid. That’s not to say that they’re not pretty in their own right - but it distinctly feels as if Jónsi’s got his solo music fully flushed out of his system for now, and that a return to his bandmates will bring a welcome refreshment to his creative juices.