“Listening to m.i.s.s. and it’s bloody brilliant. Four songs in an I already have tears in my eyes and the biggest smile on my face. Despite knowing most of the songs there is so much to discover here. Loving all the musical choices so far. Just wow. Well done!”
The quote above was my initial reaction to Ragnar Ólafsson’s second album. I had been looking forward t it very much and was happy that I got early access to it during his tour in Poland. I have to admit though that I wasn’t all that excited about it, mainly because I already knew all but one songs and really didn’t expect any surprises. Boy was I ever wrong!
Each year, my CD collection grows considerably. Whenever an artists I like puts out a new album I’ll buy it and there are always new bands to discover as well. Some of these releases are highly anticipated, others I just get to add them to my collection. No matter where on that spectrum an album falls, it rarely happens these days that a new release blows me completely off of my feet and leaves me smiling for days, while listening to it on repeat. m.i.s.s. is one of those rare albums.
It has been three years in the making and that is a long time for any album. During those three yeas I’d heard countless version of some of the songs, Sometimes evolving from rough sketches to staples played at almost every concert. All the songs on the album came into being in July 2017 while Ragnar and a friend were floating down the Mississippi river on a houseboat. At his concerts he will tell stories about this trip to introduce the songs and put them in context, but on the album they all become stories of their own.
Said stories range from casual observations of life on the river to more personal ones, but all told in a way that they remain easily relatable to the listener. Ragnar succeeds as a storyteller, especially because so much of the story can be heard between the lines. This is where much of the power of this album lies, in everyone being ale to find a piece of themselves in the lyrics. The words alone are only half of the story though and would not be as powerful as they are without the music. Every single song on the album has been beautifully sung, played, arranged, produced, mixed and mastered. Not that I know much about arranging, mixing and mastering, but I know what sounds good and this absolutely does.
At this point I’d like to give a shoutout to all of Ragnar’s collaborators on the album from Sólveigh Asgeirsdóttir and Ida Langthjen Christensen who lent him their voices to Unnur Jónsottir on cello, Sigrun Hardaðardóttir, Viktor Orri Árnason and David-Ra Vedding on violin, Baldvin Freyer Þorsteinsson, Kjartan Baldursson, Óskar Augústsson and Valur Arni Guðmundsson on guitar, Hálfdán Árnason on bass and Skúli Gíslason on drums as well as Axel “Flex” Arnason who mixed and mastered the whole thing, not to mention an entire virtual choir, but ‘ll get to that later. Every instrument, every note these people contribute is the perfect fit for the songs.
Compared to the first album Urges with its sparse production and general lo-fi approach, m.i.s.s. offers a full production and amazing soundscapes that are a joy to listen to. Thematically, Urges is a breakup album whereas m.i.s.s. captures a moment in time on Ragnar’s frequent travels and yet in some way the stories told are universal. Urges shows all the anger, sadness and despair that we feel when a love ends, m.i.s.s. offers a much more positive outlook on life. The narrator of Urges is heartbroken, whereas at the end of m.i.s.s. we hear a man at peace with himself. But let’s start at the beginning…
Southern Nights was written as a positive spell for the journey down the Mississippi river and describes the daily life on the boat, including some unexpected adventures. It is the perfect starting point for this album as well and developed from a straightforward guitar song with a country feel into this ukulele based happy song it is now. The best part of it is the virtual choir in the end that seemed like a silly idea at first when Ragnar asked his fans to contribute vocals according to his instructions, but was mixed into something beautiful that gives the song a special community feel and always makes me smile. “That’s the way that we wanna go!”
Needle & Thread then builds a bridge to the first album, being the last song about the same woman and gives a post break-up status update with a realistic take on the practical side of things. It is a goodbye song that looks back lovingly but no longer longingly at a past relationship. It’s the closing of a chapter and the upbeat melody is a good fit for that.
With Bald Eagles we are back on the river. It’s a snapshot of a day they were looking for shelter from an oncoming storm. The music is calm but slowly builds up like a storm would and thus matches the lyrics, hinting at the dangers life on the river can bring.
Message is the first duet on the album and a powerful one at that, inducing goosebumps every time I listen to it. The song perfectly captures the excitement as well as the insecurities of a new relationship from just rolling with it at the beginning to the point of realizing that both partners have different goals and trying to figure out what that means. Lyrically as well as musically it has just the right amount of drama with strings building up beautifully and sung with so much passion that I want to believe every word I hear.
The song about hope, Deva, is a personal story told through more general words about life, painful experiences and what helps us get through them. It evokes the power of friendship and tells us how sharing our feelings and caring for those we love can go a long way towards healing. The song came to me at a terrible time in my life and has helped me through much of it. “I feel, when our bodies get broken the love we all share becomes real” is the key line here and the music with guitar, bass and drums building up towards the end drives the point home beautifully.
Minor Scratch is my favorite song on an album full of brilliant pieces of music. It’s another duet, but here it is not so much the powerful singing, but the simple, yet universal message of the song. It is a wonderful ode to friendship, one of those big, indestructible ones they make movies about. “I have no fear when I’m with you.” If you’re lucky enough to have a best friend in your life, this is what it feels like and if you don’t this is what you know it should feel like. The song absolutely hits the nail on the had here and thus appeals to everyone who listens to it. And I haven’t even mentioned the gorgeous instrumentation and singing with a simple guitar motif at the core, supported by a second guitar, a bit of synthesizer and just the right amount of percussion. Perfection!
At this point we get a little break from all the emotions with Seamless, a short spoken poem, with some minimal synthesizers underneath. It a stream of consciousness about the outer and inner world of the narrator, in one long sentence describing one moment in time on one evening, concluding in “We’ll be OK” which speaks for the mood of the entire album. Anyone who likes this piece might want to check out Ragnar’s band Ask the Slave as they play with spoken poetry too (apart from the metal music).
Walls has touched me from the moment I first heard it a a concert a few years ago. I can’t really explain what it is about, but it speaks to me on several levels. On the surface it is just a little song with a lovely melody, but below are many layers that I yet have to get to. A line like “In a crowd full of people we pick out the few ones that hurt” not only rings true for me, it already has two different interpretations – I read it either in a sense that if we care to look closely we can always see who is hurting or in a sense that no matter how many people we meet, we are drawn to the ones that can hurt us. And that’s only the beginning, so I will sure return to this song many times.
The next song, Muddy Waters has “don’t take me seriously” written all over it. It was an experiment of “fuck yeah, let’s have some fun and write a blues song” and that is exactly what it is – a fun song to listen to that chases the darkness of Walls away. Ragnar gets really into it and gets away with it, which is noteworthy in itself.
Paper Crane is kind of the odd one out, but that doesn’t mean it should not be there. The song is very prog and was at one time intended for In Siren, one of Ragnar’s bands. So if you want more of this, you should go and check them out. I honestly have no clue what this song is about, it sounds to me like everyday observations mixed with dream sequences and doomsday thoughts. Either way, it sounds great and I’m enjoying every bit of it.
When I hear Beckon the German word “Fernweh” comes to mind, wich could be translated as “longing for far away places”. The dictionary say it means “wanderlust” but that is an entirely different word in German. Anyway, the song sounds like I feel at the end of a beautiful trip to a place I enjoyed being at, with my heart full of memories and happy about all the adventures I’ve had. The song speaks of a sudden clarity and the peace of mind that comes with having learned something. And there its is, in the end, the longing to come back and the knowledge that when you are someone who loves and gets inspired by travel it will stay with you for life. I can relate.
Photograph continues this theme of learning from your journeys and expands on it. This time it’s about a journey to oneself. The song is deeply spiritual, using a fading summer day as a metaphor for how to approach life and learning from our experiences. To me it’s a plea for learning to let go and opening our minds to new experiences that will help us discover who we are, learn to love ourselves and find peace within us. It’s an appropriate ending to this particular musical journey and a good lesson to take home.
Overall mi.i.s.s. is a masterpiece of an album that is a joy to listen to from start to finish and I guarantee it will leave you in a more positive mood than Urges did. Everything about it is just the way it should be. So all that is left to do is raise my glass (of red wine of course) and say: Enjoy!
You can preorder the album on Ragnar’s Bandcamp page