Ah, Megas. “The Icelandic Bob Dylan,” as I’ve heard him referred to many times. This one is going to be difficult.
There are songs that just sound great. There are also songs that have interesting lyrics that are beautifully sung. Both types can both be listened to even when their sung in a foreign language, because the sounds are so beautiful and/or interesting. But what about songs that have a deep meaning, a criticism of the things that society holds sacred, songs made for the entire purpose of conveying a deeply felt message in which the message is the thing? How can you truly understand and feel those songs without at the very least speaking the language, and probably also understanding the societal underpinnings? I get the basic message of American protest rock from the 1960s – I’m a native English speaker, I know my country’s history, and I’ve seen how it progressed immediately following that era. But I wasn’t there at that time. It’s harder for me to be as deeply connected to that music as it is for my friends who are 15-20 years older than me who experienced it as it was happening, within the immediate context of that time. I understand teen and young adult angst, but I wasn’t in London in the 1970s, so I can’t fully appreciate the environment that spawned the English punk movement. But I do speak the language.
So when it comes to Megas (Magnús Þór Jónsson), I’m at a major disadvantage. He does all his songs in Icelandic, a language I don’t understand at all. Plus I know very little of the Icelandic experience. Sure, I’ve been to Reykjavik a bunch of times. I’ve read some books, drunk brennivín, and tried whale meat. I even check out one of the English language online newspapers every day. But I don’t understand what it means to be an Icelander, and everything that entails. I can sort of intellectually comprehend what Megas is supposed to be about and his place in Icelandic culture, but I can’t feel it through his words or his impact.
So I’m kind of stuck. But here it goes anyway.
I picked up a few CD re-releases of Megas albums at Airwaves in 2012, which earned me a raised eyebrow from the clerk at the store. “Not the usual stuff tourists buy…” True. But I wanted to try to delve deeper into the roots if Icelandic music, so Megas seemed essential. I have to admit I didn’t listen to those CDs much. But that didn’t stop me from getting some Megas vinyl on this years pilgrimage to the North Atlantic. One of those acquisitions was the 1979 (recorded in late 1978) double-live record Drög Að Sjálfsmorði, which translates to Plans for Suicide. I wanted to try to capture Megas’ energy, and this seemed like a promising place to start.
By time Drög Að Sjálfsmorði came out, Megas had been poking people with sticks for close to a decade. In Blue Eyed Pop: The History of Popular Music in Iceland, author and musician Dr. Gunni credits Megas as “the first artist to successfully write intelligent lyrics in Icelandic within the context of pop music,” though goes on to note he was not well received early on, with his debut not only earning negative reviews in the press but also the distinction of being banned from Icelandic radio. The ranks of Megas’ supporters grew slowly and steadily, and by time the Icelandic punk movement broke in the early 1980s he was a sort of father figure to the upstarts, who weren’t that popular with society as a whole either. So he has the street cred of a seminal artist.
One thing is pretty clear from Drög Að Sjálfsmorði – Megas does not have a good singing voice. Now, for my Icelander readers, before you start blowing me up with hate emails I’m not criticizing the man as a musician. Simply put, he doesn’t have a particularly pleasant singing voice. It’s a little high pitched and very raspy (Dr. Gunni refers to his “rough, mumbled vocals…”), and actually reminds me a lot of Óttarr Proppé, vocalist for HAM, Dr. Spock, and a number of other influential and interesting bands from Iceland. Just because a voice isn’t “good” doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting or powerful. But it is a lot harder for a non-Icelander to truly appreciate that in the case of Megas and the folk-rock style of music he performs.
Musically Megas’ backing band keeps it pretty simple. At times the music moves beyond standard folk far and starts to become more prog, with fuller sounds, interesting twists, and even some quick solos. My favorite track on Drög Að Sjálfsmorði is “Fatamorgana Á Flæðiskerinu,” a song that has a lot of music in it, but also features a Megas who is trying a bit harder to sing and carry a tune. “Ég Horfi Niður” is another solid number with a cool blues-rock sound to both the music and the vocals. The album seems to get stronger as it progresses, though that could be because I’m just becoming more used to the sound of Megas’ voice and therefore find it less distracting.
Megas’ influence on Iceland’s musical culture can’t be overstated. Not only is he a tremendously accomplished solo musician, but he has also collaborated with seemingly everyone, from solo artists like Bubbi Morthens, Björk, and Þorlákur Kristinsson, to bands like Júdas and Ikarus. I’m not sure how often I’ll come back to Drög Að Sjálfsmorði, though we’ll just have to wait and see. I’ve got a handful of other Megas albums to listen to, including 1990s Hættuleg Hljómsveit & Glæpakvendið Stella, which features backing vocals by Björk on a number of songs, so for now I’ll keep listening.