The press release for Iceage’s new album Beyondless includes a few paragraphs of complimentary prose from Richard Hell, which feels utterly appropriate for the Danish band’s approach to music, since they have always dwelled in the same realm as an anarchic art punk like Hell. Yet for all the joyous abandon the album provides, there are melancholy underpinnings. If their first few albums were the sound of untamed youth, Beyondless is the sound of youth who have seen too much and gone too far.
Beyondless opens with the astonishing “Hurrah” (pronounced “hooray”), a relentless anti-war song filled with singer-songwriter Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s typically brilliant lyrics: “Like roaring free jazz fireworks / follow its beat / dancing to the sound of the enemy’s guns / boogie as we drop one by one.” Each couplet stuns with its painful truths, even as the music fills one’s soul with elation.
It’s a magnificent start to an album filled with magnificent songs. In fact, it’s hard to even know where to begin praising the merits of Beyondless, though it’s been obvious for nearly a decade that Iceage have only become more accomplished with each successive release. For everyone who wondered how the band would top 2014’s Plowing Into the Field of Love, Beyondless is the answer.
Rønnenfelt’s lyricism is in superlative form here as a line like “your saliva is a drug so bittersweet” (“Pain Killer”) ably demonstrates. Like it has on their other albums, religious imagery runs rampant on Beyondless, from “the mark of Cain” in “Under the Sun” to the self-exorcism of “The Day the Music Dies.” Yet, as is always the case with Iceage, there is something lurking beneath the surface.
That “something” reveals itself in myriad lyrical ways — like the “real/reel” homonym and “preying” double entendre of “Catch It” — as well as musical ones. Jakob Tvilling Pless’ basslines expand like a sinkhole underneath each song; Dan Kjær Nielsen’s drumming grabs hold before you fall into the precipice. The band has always expertly straddled the line between anarchy and melody, but with Beyondless, they’ve somehow fused those two competing forces into one line of breathtaking urgency. This also applies to Rønnenfelt’s incomparable vocals; his delivery has become more refined, but it is no less electrifying.
At times, Beyondless is overwhelming in the scope of its genius, but the chord progressions that Johan Surrballe Wieth has conjured are something divine. For example, “Under the Sun” begins with a melancholy guitar line that disappears into staccato rhythms. Those continue until the song gently takes your hand and returns you to the melancholy melody, which somehow feels even more profound the second time around.
There’s a definite Detroit influence in much of the album, particularly in the unbuttoned proto punk of “The Day the Music Dies.” It’s an influence made obvious by the video filmed in the Motor City itself. There’s also the “la la la la” chorus of “Plead the Fifth,” which feels like a sly wink to Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger.” This should not be a surprise; Pop is as much of an art punk as Richard Hell.
And since I’m on the subject of art punks (and Iggy Pop), there must be mention of David Bowie, whose cheeky swagger and gender fluidity can be found throughout much of Iceage’s aesthetic. “Thieves Like Us” is a rollicking, yet fiercely ironic drinking song with casually filthy lyrics: “Here, there’s no regard for tact / don’t stop drilling / perforate the willing / leave them thoroughly ransacked.” It’s like Iceage covering Scott Walker covering Jacques Brel with Bowie in the next room.
Such comparisons are not meant to imply Iceage are derivative pretenders to anyone’s throne. Rather, they take a diverse set of influences — from lyrical references to The Doors to the shoegazey swoops of guitar in the album’s title track — to create something entirely their own. “Take It All” stands tall as an example of combining disparate styles. It recalls not only Chuck Mangione’s “Legend of the One-Eyed Sailor,” but also mid-1980s Goth pop.
The album’s title track is on par with the best songs Iceage has yet created. Just as You’re Nothing’s “Morals” represented a quantum leap forward from New Brigade and “Forever” was a similar high water mark on Plowing Into the Field of Love, so too is “Beyondless” a representation of its title.
Rønnenfelt says the word “Beyondless” comes from a Samuel Beckett novel, yet it seems more like a definition of the song (and the album) itself. It’s so full of sorrowful dissonance that it’s almost painful to listen to, even as one yearns to listen to it on repeat. While the music is quite different from anything the band has done so far, it feels so characteristically Iceage. It’s almost as if they traveled back in time to tease us with a song from their next, even more magnificent, album. But we’ll just have to settle for the perfection of this one, for now.
Beyondless was released by Matador Records on May 4.
Leslie Hatton (@popshifter) is a Fannibal, an animal lover, a music maven and a horror movie junkie. She created and managed Popshifter from 2007 – 2017, and also contributes to Biff Bam Pop, Diabolique Magazine, Everything Is Scary, Modern Horrors, Rue Morgue and more.