The works of composer Jóhann Jóhannsson have often sounded like soundtracks to films that exist only in the mind. His 2002 album, Englabörn, was the type of record that hinted at a whole universe: a mysterious, vaguely celestial collection of crumbling planets, black holes and miles of empty space. Taken as a whole, his career appears to be a star map carved in ice, the cracks revealing patterns in the sky. His work has increased in complexity and grown more specific in its conceptual parameters since then, with many of his 4AD releases featuring layered backstories and revealing details about their conception, but his commitment to chilly, distant minimalism remains constant. Jóhannsson has also increasingly found work as a composer for film soundtracks, with his soundtrack for Bill Morrison’s The Miners’ Hymns seeing release last year and his newest record, Copenhagen Dreams, released this week via Johannsson’s own NTOV label.
Copenhagen Dreams is the soundtrack to Max Kestner’s documentary Dreams In Copenhagen, which the filmmakers described as a “city symphony.” Though Jóhannsson’s work has never sounded particularly earthbound—his combination of trembling strings, piano droplets, tinkering electronics and whispered vocals has always felt either ghostly or like something out of a science-fiction film to me—the compositions collected on this album, many of them short snippets that rarely cross the two-minute line, bear the mark of an urban sensibility. Certain tracks, like the charming “An Eiffel Tower By The Lakes” or the chilling “The Jewish Cemetery On Mollegade,” are explicitly connected to specific locations, while other songs, like the relatively bustling “Six Lane Highway” or the aching “He Says It’s The Future,” are more suggestive and oblique in their references. As with any cityscape, the record is equally concerned with both the brick-and-mortar architectural realities and the shared histories contained in those buildings.
Apparently the source film also places an emphasis on places over people—according to the press material many of the subjects interviewed in the film are out of focus—and that choice is reflected in the instrumental makeup of the album. The album is filled with quivering string sections, gently played piano parts and patient percussion. Pastoral songs like “A Memorial Garden On Enghavevej” sound best when experienced in isolation, away from the clatter of daily life; this is not party music. Haunting vocals pop up on “They Had To Work It Out Between Them,” and artist Hildur Gudnadóttir (who has worked with mum and Throbbing Gristle) contributes vocals to the album’s two closing tracks, “Here, They Used To Build Ships” and “They Imagine The City Growing Out Into The Ocean,” but the singing rarely announces itself, instead staying balanced in the mix, hovering quietly over the track like an apparition.
Despite the emphasis on violins and violas over the human voice, the record retains a yearning romantic quality. Copenhagen is by almost all accounts a beautiful city, and it’s often been ranked as one of the “most livable cities in the world” by the type of people that make lists like that, so it’s unsurprising that Jóhannsson wasn’t completely immune to its charms. The emotional intensity of the album grows as it progresses, with stark piano-driven tracks like “It Will Take Some Time” and “She Loves To Ride The Port Ferry When It Rains” providing an elegiac kick to the heart amidst all the ethereal prettiness. Far from being a love-letter to the city, it’s more like a heartfelt rumination or a reverent prayer from a non-believer.
Taken as a full album, the record feels less ambitious than Jóhannsson’s more adventurous solo output, but as a mood piece and a soundtrack, it’s a thoughtful and occasionally very moving collection. In an interview with Headphone Commute Jóhannsson discussed the difference between his soundtrack work and his own albums by saying, “There is not a big difference in my approach—the differences are mostly practical and logistical, the amount of time I have to complete the project, the resources I have, etc. For my albums there is obviously less time pressure, so they take longer.” This becomes more clear the more you listen to Copenhagen Dreams. The sketchbook-like quality of the record gives it a hazy and elusive eclecticism but occasionally robs it of its potential cumulative power.