Album Review: JFDR – Museum

[Houndstooth; 2023]

Jófríður Ákadóttir is in between states. The Icelandic musician (who goes by JFDR) found herself in existential turmoil after the release of her 2020 album New Dreams, worrying over her work. She found herself troubling over old demos and eventually returned to New York, where her earlier records came to life. Her new album, Museum, is “an album about clearing and healing; like breathing fresh strong air through your old self” as Ákadóttir describes it herself. Made without wanting to overcomplicate the process or end result, the album is almost starkly bare at times, an odourless perfume mist that struggles to leave you changed come the end.

To Ákadóttir’s benefit she can pull off the delicate, troubled songwriter painting in muted tones – the best moments of New Dreams are a testament to that – but here on Museum the life seems drained away. Though she repeatedly sings of feeling like she’s caught in some unclear grey area (“I am the spectator / I am the middle man” she troubles on “Spectator”), the music itself seems lost there too. Gentle piano, lightly gauzy patches of synth swells, and occasional shimmering strings swirl together to create a faceless backdrop for Ákadóttir’s lyrics. Even after multiple spins, you’d be hard pressed to recall a specific instrumental flourish after listening through Museum.

This is part of the intention though, for Ákadóttir not to overcomplicate anything here and perhaps let her words shine through all the clearer. But the album’s best moments come when she sounds like her words and music are in sync. The budding, unfurling keys on opening track “The Orchid” lends itself to a sort of indie RnB vibe, and even though it only ever simmers lightly, the sound of the track perching on the cusp of spilling over helps add a certain tension. Likewise, “Spectator” hones in on a fragility thanks to Ákadóttir’s wavering voice and a surrounding intensifying mist. She sounds like she either has been or is about to start crying as she worryingly asks “How can I help you if it‘s best for me / To stay away?”

But equally Ákadóttir’s voice can weigh a track down – and not in a sturdy anchoring manner. Clunky lyrics throughout don’t so much evoke a feeling of relief as they do a wince of embarrassment. “The sideways moon is smiling / The silent doom is within me” goes one particularly lumbering moment while “February” seems to have formed around Ákadóttir’s desire to share the dullest of facts (“February birthdays are the rarest”). It’s telling then that the sweet and brief instrumental track “Flower Bridge” is perhaps the best thing here. Unencumbered by detail and honing in on a lovely ineffable warm feeling, its soft keys and lightly playful melodies even manages to evoke the early work of fellow countrymates múm.

Museum’s all too few moments of engaging material are disappointing though, even if you consider it a transitionary album. Too often it sounds hollow, unfinished, and wanting for any kind of colour to fill in the lines. Final track “Underneath the Sun” might conjure a glimmer of hope in the tone, but it simply turns the grey to a beige, the disjointed words making for unmelodic and unmemorable verses. Fittingly, Ákadóttir has made her own museum here, and each of the songs on the album are monochrome statues that we the listener get to walk around and view, but we leave the building indifferent to any real history and experience they represent. It’s like Night at the Museum, but without any of the magic. A simple night shift as the moonlight moves shadows across the statues. The sculptures remain unmoved, as do the listeners of the album.