The question of precisely what constitutes "art" will never truly be answered. The closest thing to a consensus that I've been able to observe between rational, thinking people is this: it has to have been made by a human being. Putting aside, for the moment, the fact that elephants and robots have painted, this test works pretty well. It's the essential humanity of a painting of a tree that makes us want to look at it, while we ignore the actual tree.
Similarly, rather than flying down to Iceland and experiencing the landscapes firsthand, you can and should listen to In a Safe Place. The appeal here is, bizarrely, not in the album's humanity -- it's in its glacial implacability. It's in the patience of its frozen streams, and in the richly-hued resonance of a cold blue sky over rich green pastures.
The Album Leaf's sole member, Jimmy LaValle, made In a Safe Place in Sigur Rós's special studio with their string section and a few other members, so it's no surprise that the Sigur Rós influence here is pretty obvious. It's right there. However, LaValle's own imprint certainly isn't lost in a sea of Sigur Rós. Whereas the Icelandic pop stars, predictably, grew up in Iceland, LaValle had never been there. Sigur Rós's music seems to have taken its inspiration from the country's gorgeous landscapes, while LaValle seems duly overwhelmed by them.
As a result, these songs seem almost untouched by human hands -- it's as if the landscape itself had picked up instruments and played them. Recently thawed streams spin out cold, slow tones, which trickle away from the slowly dying glaciers that fuel them. Fallen leaves float serenely on the water's surface, humming faster-paced, more melodic tunes. Nearby trees strike icicles to make sounds like frozen bells. The only sign of human life for miles is a drum set, crisp electronic beats, and vocals that seem more like a witness to events than a driving force.
It seems entirely possible that LaValle had nothing to do with this primarily instrumental music until "The Outer Banks". In a Safe Place hinges upon a single realization: human hands have not only touched this pristine musical landscape, they created it. "The Outer Banks", with its relatively intense arrangement, its persistent and stirring beats, is the source of this minor epiphany. Keep this under your hat, please, but I cried a little. (Pussy. -- Ed.)
Sigur Rós never worked for me; they seem too accustomed to the beauty they create. The Album Leaf is different. With In a Safe Place, LaValle has documented an overwhelming experience: the very act of working with these people in their fantasy landscape intoxicated him. You have to wonder what kind of music he'd make in a desert, or a rain forest, or a sprawling Japanese rice field. It must be exhausting to create the illusion that your album sprang, fully formed, from the air -- that you simply recorded the ambient atmosphere of a particularly stunning vista -- but in this case, it was worth the trouble. Humanity be damned: In a Safe Place is a gorgeous work of art.