Jónsi We Bought a Zoo Review

Released 2012.  

BBC Review

Cameron Crowe’s dreams come true as he co-writes with the Icelander on this soundtrack.

Mike Diver 2012

We Bought a Zoo, the movie, left a slight impression on the stateside box office over Christmas 2011. Based on the real-life story of the Mee family from Devon, who purchased and refurbished Dartmoor Zoological Park in 2006/07, it attracted plaudits for Matt Damon’s performance as Benjamin Mee, and was the sixth-biggest draw of its opening weekend.

We Bought a Zoo, the soundtrack, is rather more interesting: composed by Sigur RósJónsi at the request of the film’s director Cameron Crowe, it’s the second score that the Icelander has been involved in following his group’s work on the 2002 documentary Hlemmur. But with his solo stock higher than ever, this set is a rather more significant release – not least because one new track, Gathering Stories, is a co-write between musician and director.

Crowe and Sigur Rós go back a decade – he used the band’s music in his 2001 movie Vanilla Sky – and Jónsi’s material was already influencing the atmosphere of We Bought a Zoo ahead of the man’s signing on the dotted line. Actors were instructed to listen to tracks from his catalogue ahead of certain scenes, to create the ‘right’ energy. It’s fair to think that, just maybe, this adulation might lead to ego on the artist’s part hindering his ability to deliver an effective end product, but such thoughts are soon enough dashed by familiar motifs which reassure the listener that Jónsi is on form.

The intro to Why Not? sets a trademark tone, with crystalline chimes topped by shimmering cymbals. It’s box-ticking behaviour from its maker, but once the piece opens up, from pinhole to widescreen, he has the senses truly suckered. A brand new song ‘proper’ follows, Ævin Endar, built around gentle piano lines and sung in Icelandic.

Boy Lilikoi, Sinking Friendships and Go Do are brought across from his solo LP, Go. They fit neatly enough into the ordering here, likewise Sigur Rós’ only hit single Hoppípolla, but aren’t the USP of this release – that’s the ‘themes’ penned exclusively for the film. Brambles is pretty music box percussion and background scratches; Whole Made of Pieces is a swooning, sumptuous affair with strings swaying in a solid mix; and the titular track feels like a lost interlude from the Sigur Rós catalogue, building to a break of vocal gibberish and subtle electronic bleeps before strings sweep in and carry the piece skywards. It’s measured, comfortable writing – but effective all the same.

Gathering Stories is no disappointment, but its busy chatter lacks the sparkle of the Icelander’s best work. If it points a curious few back to the magnificence of Svefn-g-Englar, though, it’ll be a case of job well done for all, as well as a dream come true for Crowe.

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