With ( ), Sígur Ros has set a trap for everyone who writes about contemporary music: discuss an album with no interpretive reference points. The title means nothing (or is it everything?) and cannot actually be pronounced; there are no titles listed for any of the eight tracks, not even “Untitled” or “Song Without Intelligible Lyrics” or “Long-Ass Instrumental”; there are no liner notes or credits, just pages in the booklet with the faint impression of trees and their website address; the “lyrics”, when they appear infrequently, consist largely of one unintelligible phrase repeated in different ways. It’s a gauntlet, thrown down from these four Icelanders: concentrate on the music.
I’m not sure that anyone has avoided this trap. Music writers want something to grab on to, a peg on which to hang our critical hats, and this album gives us nothing like that. I’ve seen effusive and lukewarm and incredibly hostile reviews of this record, and all of them recapitulate what we already know about Sígur Ros, the band’s history and their last LP and all, as if that stuff has anything to do with this record. It doesn’t. When you listen to a record, you shouldn’t be hearing History or Back Catalogue—you should be paying attention to what you’re actually hearing. You should be listening.
I’m going to take up their challenge, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to fall right into a different trap. So excuse me if I’m not jumping on the Internet to find out the songs’ “real” titles as Sígur Ros has announced them in concert, which would seem to tell me some kind of “real” meaning of these songs, so I could tell you. I don’t think there are any real meanings to these songs, other than the ones we bring to them, each on our own. And if you want some kind of in one’s head, or the information that remains when there’s nothing in the parentheses, or something: I’m not sure, and it doesn’t matter. My only clue—and here I’m cheating massively—is that I saw them in concert a month ago, and these songs were invariably accompanied by hazy images of children, of childhood . . . but even if this stuff is about the end of childhood or innocence or any of those trotted-out tropes, I wouldn’t know, and it probably tells you more about me than the opening section of this record.
What I can say about this opening suite is that the songs share a glacial pace, that they all seem to share an incredible sadness behind their Floydian deliberation, and that they rely for their drama on the building up and release of sound. This sound is usually incredibly pretty but very repetitive; there are hooks, to be sure, but they take so long to kick in that they might as well not be. Without lyrical milemarkers, it’s hard to remember them when they’re gone, but when the songs are actually playing I am constantly surprised at sounds that I hadn’t noticed before: the martial thump of the drums, the feedback squelch of Track 4, the smooth transition between the Telstar drift of the second “song” and the gentle Bach- and “Music Box Dancer”-derived arpeggios of the third piece. And the production has been left imperfect, with tiny meta-reminders everywhere that this is a created record by human beings.
And as for the lyrical motif, it seems to run its course at the end of the “suite”: after hearing the same nonsensical ten or eleven syllables over and over again until they become a kind of musical Rorshach test (is he saying “you sigh low”? is the second part’s “you fi low” actually “you follow”?), the singer’s voice starts to give out at the 6:40 mark, and he departs from the formula, singing something different—and then nothing. A 30-second pause begins, and that part is over. It’s as if he can’t bring himself to say whatever it is he was saying anymore, and once that happens there can be no more music for now.
The second “half” of ( ), which is actually a bit longer than the first “half,” is easier to write about, because it doesn’t seem to be linked or “thematic” in any way. (Apologies for all the quotation marks. They’re annoying me too.) Four more songs, all of them longer than eight and a half minutes, mostly as slow and mysterious as the surface of the moon, and just as impenetrable as the first four.
These are not pieces that bend to the whim of typical rock construction; I don’t hear choruses or verses, and bridges are completely out of the question. The fifth track continues in the same plodding moody mode for eight minutes before turning into a loud march for its last two, and the rest of the tracks pretty much follow the same formula, long slow buildups leading to emotional releases. The only time when Sígur Ros messes with their second-half game plan is on the last track, when they decide to undeniably rock out for the second half of the song. There are real guitars here, Orri pounds away on his drums like a madman, and the falsetto wailing reminds one more of prog heroes like Jon Anderson and Freddie Mercury than just another instrument in the mix. It’s amazing how much power the band packs into the last five minutes of this record, and if you are more rockist than I am you might actually get upset that they don’t do that a little more. But that’s just not what they’re after.
What, ultimately, are they after? Well, I don’t know. The “you sigh low” motif does in fact return on these last four songs, but not regularly, and not any more understandably than before, and none of the rest of the pieces let a listener into their mystery any more than the earlier ones. Getting through the thirteen minutes of the seventh track get to be kind of a slog, because it’s all ebb and flow and ebb and flow and, well, at this point in the record I’ve heard it before. And for all its Icelandic soul, and the apparent craft and love and heart that have gone into this record, there is really no way into any of these songs emotionally for me. And I guess I need more than that at this point in my life from a record: some kind of touchstone, something to connect with.
Again, that may be more about me than about you—but I tend to find that I like this album when I’m in a good mood and I’m kind of bored by it when I’m in a kind of bored mood and I’m annoyed with it when I’m in a bad mood. So maybe there’s nothing here more interesting or deep or significant than what it is on the surface: a very beautiful record that means nothing more than what it is: a very beautiful record that means nothing more than what it is: a very beautiful record that means nothing more than what it is: