"I think some people will love it and some people will hate it," says Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdottir, the lead singer for Of Monsters and Men. She's talking about "Thousand Eyes," one of her favorite songs on the Icelandic band's forthcoming album, Beneath the Skin, an abrupt shift from the post-Mumford & Sons stomp-drum choruses and folksy pleas for communion that defined their 2012 debut, My Head Is an Animal.
Here, a menacing drum pulse and droning guitars have replaced the feel-good sing-alongs, and no one shouts "Hey!" in unison. "It demands a reaction," she says, adding that her band's two LPs are "kind of black and white – they're pretty polar opposite."
After several years of constant touring, Of Monsters and Men began recording Beneath the Skin at home in Iceland late last year. As the title suggests, Hilmarsdottir wanted the songs to be as unguarded and honest as possible. "On this album, we were exploring, and it's more personal," she says. "We accepted that it would be uncomfortable, but we were OK with it. We were going to go all the way. We were going to dig deep."
This is no more evident than on lead single "Crystals." "Cover your crystal eyes, and feel the tones that tremble down your spine," the group sings, surrendering to their own vulnerability before ultimately embracing it. Then Hilmarsdottir arrives, quivering, with the mission statement: "I'm OK in see-through skin."
"That song sums up the album, in a way," she now explains. "Lyrically, it's just about being open. Completely, uncomfortably open, like an open book."
"Crystals" is one of several songs that began to take shape while the band was on the road, something new for the group. "It went through a lot of stages," Hilmarsdottir says. "The original idea is nothing like what it ended up being. The bridge was a pre-chorus, and the chorus wasn't even in there. We were always just trying to figure that one out."
As the band's new sound might suggest, the singer-songwriter's tour bus playlist has included recent albums from Björk and Grimes. "There are a lot of females making amazing music right now," she enthuses. "Being a female myself, I find that I'm inspired by other women making music, so that's what I've been listening to. I've been listening to women."
Since 2011, Of Monsters of Men have been touring almost non-stop in support of My Head Is an Animal, which reached the Top 20 in nearly a dozen countries. But when it came time to start thinking about recording this follow-up, the band knew it needed to take a step back from its hectic schedule. "At some point we just kind of said that we have to reflect on things and think about where this whole journey has taken us," Hilmarsdottir says.
"With the first record, there were not really any time limits. This time, we had this certain amount of time that we had to finish, with deadlines and everything. We could go on recording forever. There's always something that we want to do more of and think about more, so I guess at some point it's good to stop us."
Returning to the studio, Of Monsters and Men learned not just how to work within limits but how to exercise a little sonic restraint. On the new record, soft songs like "Organs" display a newfound sense of intimacy, something doesn't always come naturally for the five-piece, especially when its touring band expands to nine. "We have this energy when we're all together where we always want to take it all the way," Hilmarsdottir says. "But I'm a big sucker for the quiet moments. We had to contain ourselves with 'Organs.' It was like, 'Let's bring it up!' And I was like, 'No, no, no. Chill out!"
These small arguments proved essential to the band's process of rediscovery. Less than two months away from Beneath's June 9th release, the singer is satisfied with the result. "We were going to dig deep," she says of the experience making the album. "It was weird, but it was good."