In 2011, a group of Danish teenagers, only a year or two older than I was at the time, put out New Brigade, an album of unrelentingly aggressive punk rock. Denmark is not necessarily known for its post-punk scene, but if I was initially drawn to the novelty of this band, Iceage, the album only stuck with me because it was really, really good. It was messy, raw and intense in all the best ways. They had an unmistakable energy; you got the sense of a band whose chaotic frenzy was only barely under control.
The album’s 12 songs came in at under 25 minutes, with only a single track longer than three minutes, and there wasn’t a single weak spot or wasted moment. The songs were in English, but it didn’t matter; you could make out the odd word here or there, but most of the time you were being assaulted by Iceage’s sheer ferocity. And despite its subsequent signing to indie powerhouse Matador Records, the follow-up – last year’s You’re Nothing – while maybe adding a little more nuance and skill, was just as powerful. The first indication that their third album Plowing Into the Field of Love, released last Tuesday through Matador, would be a departure from their previous work was the release of lead single “The Lord’s Favorite” in July. Could those be acoustic guitars? Is that a distinguishable melody? Why can I make out all (or at least most) of lead singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s lyrics? The song has the last thing you would expect: a distinct country twang. The blogosphere’s previous charges of nihilism (probably deserved) and fascism (probably not) were quickly updated to comparisons with Nick Cave, Australia’s blues-influenced punk rocker.
At 48 minutes, Plowing Into the Field of Love is twice the length of New Brigade, with only a single song under three minutes. In addition to heavy guitars and drums, the album enlists piano, mandolin, viola, organ and horns at various points. That is not to say that Iceage no longer sounds like itself; the gritty, visceral emotion is definitely still there. The new sounds are supplements rather than replacements; the songs are slowed down, but remain just as potent. “Glassy Eyed, Dormant and Veiled,” a song about an absent father, is made even more devastating by the addition of a mournful trumpet. “Abundant Living” promises to be most like classic Iceage at two-and-a-half minutes, but the pounding guitars are cut through by a mandolin riff that manages to be both legitimately catchy and strangely reminiscent of Irish music. My favorite track, “Forever,” demonstrates a masterful control of tension and anticipation. The song begins with a slow and languid progression that increasingly crescendos and accelerates only to abruptly stop and then start and then stop again. Accompanied by repeated chants of “If I could dive into the other / I’d lose myself forever,” the song continuously threatens to break into confusion and dissonance, and ultimately ends with a climactic burst of horns.
The longer songs and broader instrumentation also allow Rønnenfelt’s lyrics to play a bigger part, and they don’t disappoint. Throughout the album, he can be startlingly lyrical, insightful and even playful, as well as exceptionally dark. He is remarkably self-aware about the dangers of his own youthful impulsiveness, but nevertheless embraces it in all its contradictions and hypocrisies. On “Against the Moon,” Iceage’s version of a piano ballad, he balances recklessness with a sense of futility: “Whatever I do / I do not repent / I keep pissing against the moon.” On “Stay,” in what is perhaps a reference to both the band’s own feral dynamism and a more general youthful abandon, he sings: “Before my thoughts go running wild / As a feral horse / And it will gallop till its death.” In a grand summation, the final, title track ends with the lines: “I am plowing into the field of love / They will place me in a hearse.” All told, the band’s increased depth, variety, and richness make Plowing Into the Field of Love one of the best rock albums of the year.
The smarter, more sophisticated band is perhaps best exemplified by the music video for the “The Lord’s Favorite.” Rønnenfelt plays an arrogant, ostentatious rock star entitled to the trappings of rock star life, namely “one hundred euro wine” and anonymous exchanges with women in “cheap sweat smothered makeup,” continuing, “After all I think it’s evident that I am god’s favorite one / And now is the time I should have whatever I desire.” The stylish video brilliantly combines an unflinching seriousness with a mocking wink – Rønnenfelt almost maliciously, without even a hint of a smile, stares straight into the camera while the band members pour bottles of champagne over themselves, smear makeup on their faces, and sip cocktails with dice in them. Just as Rønnenfelt’s lyrics are self-consciously against type, the band is all too aware that they are subverting expectations with their new musical direction. After an album this engaging, I can’t wait to see what they do next.