Classical and compositional music is usually incapable of receiving the same kind of critique as popular music. There is more to contend with as far as the compositional strength, originality, and technique of a piece are concerned whereas an indie album is more often judged on its sound, its immediacy, and its idiosyncrasies. That Olafur Arnalds is treated less like a composer and more like an indie songwriter is probably more the result of his presence and approach to music and less the music itself. So it might be unfair to hold For Now I Am Winter accountable to the same standards of presentation and cohesiveness as his indie music peers. There is also no doubt that Arnalds is a talented composer, with many outstanding portions of Winter mirroring everyone from Philip Glass to Hans Zimmer. But Arnalds fails to bridge the gap between his classical influences and trip hop inclinations in any particularly substantial way. The result is a pleasing –if often hollow – collection of angsty orchestrations which fret about for a little while before going silent.
For Now I Am Winter is, at times, nearly a trip hop album, edging slowly from orchestral mood music into Massive Attack territory, only to pull back out and repeat the process. The first two tracks, “Sudden Throw” and the magnificent (and Owen Pallett-esque) “Brim”, are instrumentals that feel as though they belong to an album on which you would not have to even make the distinction. When vocals suddenly appeared on the underwhelming “For Now I Am Winter” I found myself wishing that For Now I Am Winter could have been the album that “Brim” belonged to, and not this overwrought Mezzanine b-side. The vocals, like most of the instrumentals, are excessively melancholy – I have nothing against melancholy music, but it’s a dangerous mood to play around in when you don’t have the lyrical acuity to back it up.
“Words of Amber” is built around a haunting piano line that manages to evoke a sense of gravity and pain that the album’s occasional lyrics are unable to. But the song itself feels empty; a momentary tonal swell close to the 3-minute mark contains a bit of microphone clipping that I latched onto and that made me long for anything by way of atmosphere or naturalness to it. For an album that affects to be representational of a natural phenomenon, For Now I Am Winter sounds fairly artificial. Winter’s best moments come as the result of the kinetic and real-sounding violins on songs like “Reclaim” and the aforementioned “Brim.” “Reclaim” is also punched up with a very dubby, almost slimy break beat that at the very least least lends some additional life and intensity to the song.
The frenetic piano work on “Old Skin” revels in the album’s other big success: that it (and Arnalds) is relentlessly impressive. At its best the song sounds, again, a lot like something out of the Owen Pallett (another aggressively hit or miss indie/classical crossover) discography. But Pallett seems to have a much wider emotional palette (ha ha) at his disposal, mixing in wit and reference with otherwise dour music. “We (Too) Shall Rest” provides for a brief but substantial emotional payoff, but the recording seems better tuned to a moment of revelation in a period film than to an indie album. The feral and electronica-influenced “This Place Was A Shelter” is the last refuge for musical intrigue on Winter before the oddly bright but ultimately underwhelming synth swells of “Carry Me Anew.”
For Now I Am Winter will definitely have its ardent supporters, and if I haven’t made it clear in this review, the album is not without merit (or some emotional residue) and is still the work of a very talented composer and performer. Perhaps someone better equipped to do so than I am could tell you that the compositions on Winter are artful and magnificent – perhaps it is a compositional success and perhaps it has achieved everything it aimed to achieve. And though these songs may be moving live, things just don’t quite come together in recorded form.