Rarely has the controversial (to reviewers and critics, at least) and variously-attributed adage—“writing about music is like dancing about architecture”—seemed more appropriate than when considering Iceland’s Sigur Rós. Capturing any genuine essence of their music in words alone has always been a difficult (some would say foolhardy) pursuit. As if aware of this, the band perversely released this latest work without title, song titles, lyrics or liner notes; and with a wintry booklet devoid of anything but vague transparent frost- and skeletal tree-like patterns.
Well, foolhardy or not, here goes. With Sigur Rós, the words “willfully obscure” spring to mind at every juncture, a route littered with pitfalls for a band already somewhat lazily compared to prog rock acts such as Pink Floyd. Like the early Cocteau Twins, however, their songs appeal more to the intuitive ear than to the analytical mind; lyrics are spare and sparse and are often sung in a nonsense language dubbed “hopelandic”, inviting very personal responses. On ( ) a basic refrain is variously interpreted—pulled apart and continuously reconstructed. “You sigh alone” becomes “you slide along” becomes whatever other variation each individual listener may attribute to it. (Literally so, if you visit the band’s website.)
The album has a simple enough structure—two distinct “sides” of four songs separated by a half minute of silence; the first referred to as the “sweet” side by the band, and the second the “heavy”. Perhaps this structure is reflected in the parentheses-like graphic on the cover that has become its de facto title. But there you see the trap this band lays, inviting increasingly tighter circles of interpretation until we risk swallowing our own tails. Although the songs are not named anywhere on the CD, some digging on the web will reveal that unofficial titles do exist. It’s as if the band is insisting on a deeper engagement from listeners who display the necessary patience, as if promising a richer reward for those willing to forego the more familiar attention-deficit passivity of mass consumerism. Or something like that, anyway.
Well, with this music, I think they can claim to have largely succeeded. These are the sounds that aliens would make if they were attempting to communicate the beauty—and fragility—of our place in the vast, frigid cosmos. The Icelandic connection always invites metaphors that reflect the low end of the thermometer, and to some extent the wintry majesty of the landscape on ( ) is undeniable, but there is nonetheless a flicker of warmth, too, within that cavernous indifference. Jon Thor Birgisson’s extraordinary and androgynous vocalizing provides some of that warmth.
This is the very outer edge of singing, somewhere between a spinetingling wail and an earnest cathedral-hush soprano. In places, this voice is tweaked and augmented until the whisperings and interjections suggest other voices barely human, as if the trickster creatures of Icelandic myth—giggling, mischievous, atavistic—are hiding between the more familiar notes, ready to unsettle and bewilder.
This is most apparent on Track 4 (“Njósnavélin” or “The Nothing Song”), which creates a swirling snowstorm of aching beauty around numerous elements: an initially ominous yet strangely snug organ sound; the rising and repeating of lyrical scraps already referred to; the bowed guitar (specifically, a cello bow with lots of rosin); spare strings (provided throughout the album by the all female quartet Amina), and a child’s nursery rhyme interlude of tinkling piano—before roaring toward an aching crescendo. There are even sounds faintly suggestive of Celtic pipes flapping hoarsely in the far distance of a couple of the songs, seemingly snatched by sudden fierce gusts—on track 1 (“Vaka”) with its forlorn sounds of bereft children, and even more overtly on track 3 (“Samskeyti” or “Attachment”). These themes, particularly in the first section, are repeated over and over, taut and slack and played out like kite string, as if sailing something pitifully fragile in the howling frozen wastes. The four opening songs, in their emotional and melodic intensity, leave you unable to choose between hope and sorrow.
With the second group of four songs, however, we are left with little doubt or ambiguity. The tone and themes here are most definitely darker and more sepulchral. With longer running times still—up to 13 minutes for track 7 (“the Death Song”)—these miniature symphonies build even more slowly, with minimalist organ, sporadic snare, haunting e-bow (track 6 is unofficially known as “E-bow” after Georg Holm uses that device on his bass guitar), and always Birgisson’s unsettling soaring voice. This is a distant cousin of the familiar loud/soft dynamic of many post-Pixies rock bands; call it a quiet/disquiet dynamic instead. They may build slowly like a glassy sea concealing hidden tsunamis, but when that big wave finally breaks, and breaks, and breaks—as on “The Death Song”—the result is astonishingly wrenching.
The angelic dirge of Track 5 (“Alafoss”—the name of their converted-pool studio) gives way to “E-bow”—the sound of gathering doomed armies—which in turn paves the way for the glacial blues of “The Death Song” itself; a full-on lament punctuated by a series of little deaths before the inevitable climax almost drowns out Birgisson’s soaring voice. The closer, “Popplagi
” (“The Pop Song”), is astounding in its merging of more traditional rock structures with the unifying themes of the preceding songs. Comparisons with their previous album, Agætis Byrjun, reveal more glacial sparsity here; such exquisitely delayed gratification resulting in ultimately more rewarding payoffs.
The music of Sigur Rós has been dismissed by some as anachronistic and pretentious pomp rock. Well, duh. In this regard, even staunch defenders often find themselves weaponless and vulnerable. This strange, otherworldly music can leave one floundering, flailing to pinpoint a genre, an influential predecessor, a familiar hook to hang it all on. It’s a language never uttered, describing a landscape barely dreamed of. The gorgeous folly of our fragile existence is rendered simultaneously tragic and silly, leaving us bewildered and bewitched. It’s both the orange campfire glow and the bleak blue icefields that stretch in all directions. Like the traditional Inuit stone artifact—the Inukshuk—here is a human-like figure, arms touchingly spread in welcome amid a cold and lonely environment . . . Hmmm. Wait. What was I saying about architecture and dancing?