The more things change, the more they stay the same
There’s an overarching theme that permeates Sigur Rós’ fifth full-length, Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust: change. For the first time in their career, Sigur Rós ventured outside of their homeland of Iceland to record, booking studio time in London, New York and Havana, of all places. While the band’s previous LPs were all either self-produced or guided by the hand of Ken Thomas, Með Suð... finds Sigur Rós working with celebrated British producer Flood, a man who isn’t exactly known for his light touch (see Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral and Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness). Finally, there’s the album’s artwork, which features gloriously washed-out shots of nudists at play by photographer Ryan McGinley. Just one glance at the LP’s sun-drenched cover should be enough to signal that this isn’t the band of self-serious recluses that we’ve come to know and love.
Lending credence to this idea is the aptly named “Gobbledigook”, the album’s first single, which the band “leaked” via its website in late May. Gone are the ethereal atmospherics and delicate melodies for which the band is known. All errant strums, distant howls and tribal polyrhythms, “Gobbledigook” finds Sigur Rós diagramming an emotion rarely touched upon in their catalog: rapturous joy. While the song essentially sounds like a more urgent version of Animal Collective’s “Leaf House”, it’s still unmistakably Sigur Rós, thanks mostly to vocalist Jón Þór “Jónsi” Birgisson’s untrained falsetto, which soars over the choppy dynamics like a seagull. Toward the end, the song devolves into a handclapped breakdown with a chorus of voices singing “La la la la / La la la la” to a manic, connect-the-dots melody. Eventually, the rest of the instruments catch up and the song stumbles and stomps its way to an abrupt close. It’s an appropriate ending to a delightfully messy, willfully amateurish song; a three-minute burst of pure, childlike bliss that stands in stark contrast to the austere precision of the band’s back catalog.
Unfortunately, the remainder of Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust (With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly, in English) isn’t nearly as adventurous, though that isn’t to say that it’s not a major departure. “Gobbledigook” serves as the album’s first track, not to mention its statement of purpose. From there, “Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur” carries the torch ably, opening with a rain of glockenspiel notes, ringing piano chords and handclaps. Though more structurally traditional than “Gobbledigook”, “Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur” is almost equally festive, eschewing the glacial, deliberate pacing of most Sigur Rós songs for something far more immediate. After the end of the first verse, the familiar sound of Icelandic string quartet Amiina wafts in, soon to be joined by five mournful horns. While these instruments threaten to weigh down the mood, the song manages to stay upbeat, due in large part to Birgisson’s sky-gazing vocals. At the end, it all comes together in a glorious, orchestral rinforzando.
By way of contrast, “Góðan Daginn” is as stripped-down as “Inní Mér…” is lush. Consisting of a simple acoustic guitar line, a shuffling, jazzy snare beat and the distant sound of an EBow-sustained high E string, the song recalls the intimate performances detailed in last year’s excellent Sigur Rós documentary, Heima. While the downtempo tune manages to sap the momentum cultivated by the previous two songs, it feels like a necessary break, a reminder that this is, in fact, a Sigur Rós record. Luckily, “Við Spilum Endalaust” quickly picks up the pace, with the accordion and throbbing bass line of its opening verse quickly giving way to a soaring chorus, replete with a full horn section and a choir.
While more obviously rooted to the band’s previous work than many of the other songs on Með Suð...‘s first half, “Festival” stands as one of the album’s more interesting and memorable compositions. Belying its name, the song’s first movement takes the form of a protracted, hazy lament. Echoey, sustained guitar and organ notes bleed together, forming a watery backdrop for Birgisson’s high-pitched howls. In many ways, it recalls a scene from Heima in which the band plays inside an abandoned herring fishery in the western Icelandic town of Djúpavík, every note ricocheting off of the fishery’s metal walls. Nearly five minutes into the more than nine-minute song, the first movement bows out and a steady bass line and pounding drums enter. As the song slowly builds toward its inevitable climax, strings and a swirling round of Birgisson’s coos get layered on top. Finally, the drums peak and the song blooms into an explosive crescendo. A lilting, sorrowful organ melody floats overhead while Orri Páll Dýrason’s furious drum rolls tumble below, recalling ( )‘s much-loved pièce de résistance , “Untitled #8”.
While Með Suð...‘s first half focuses mostly on iconoclasm, the songs on side B have a lot more in common with Sigur Rós’ previous work. For the most part, they sound like stripped-down versions of songs that could have appeared on any of the band’s last three albums. They bear much resemblance to the acoustic performances collected on the Heim side of last year’s Hvarf/Heim collection (essentially the soundtrack to Heima). “Með Suð í Eyrum” and “Fljótavík” are both piano-based, downtempo numbers that build toward a cathartic finale. “Illgresi” is a folky, fingerpicked ballad. Yet another piano composition, “Ára Bátur” distinguishes itself by pushing Birgisson’s falsetto to new heights and by featuring a greatly expanded cast of characters. Apparently recorded live, in one take, with both the London Sinfonietta and the London Oratory Boys Choir, the song features a total of 90 musicians in its final third. As you might imagine, its conclusion is a grandiose, symphonic affair, employing the sort of orchestral sweep that Sigur Rós have always worked to approximate.
Pacing-wise, the album’s second half is quite a bit more soporific than its first. However, the band does manage to save one last surprise for the patient listener. For years, Sigur Rós have been threatening to record an album in English, much to the chagrin of fans and critics alike. Apparently English was even considered for use on the band’s breakthrough third LP, ( ), though Vonlenska (aka “Hopelandic”), a set of nonsensical sounds that approximate Icelandic phonology, won out in the end. While this abstraction—or flat out rejection—of verbal communication poses a number of interesting semantic questions, for our purposes, the difference is the same, since the vast majority of us are as fluent in Vonlenska as we are in Icelandic.
Thankfully, it turns out that there’s not much of a difference even when Jónsi sings in English. The album’s last track and the band’s first in English, “All Alright” finds Birgisson mumbling, barely audibly, over a spare piano melody and somber horns. Eventually, he raises his voice to the point where it can be heard clearly but even then, it’s virtually impossible to make out what he’s saying. The end result is that, when listened to in the context of the album, it’s hard to discern any linguistic difference between “All Alright” and the album’s other songs. Sure, if you donned a pair of headphones and really strained your ears, you could probably pick out a few English words. However, that’s true of just about any song in the Sigur Rós catalog, regardless of what language (or non-language) it’s sung in.
Despite what “Gobbledigook” led many of us to believe, Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust is not an album of experimental psych-folk. On first listen, this can be a little disappointing, as no other song on the LP approaches the opening track’s giddy high. However, on repeated listens it becomes quite clear that Með Suð... is still a departure for Sigur Rós, if not a radical one. The album finds the band moving outside of their compositional comfort zone on many tracks, while largely abandoning the arsenal of effects pedals that they’ve long hid behind. And while the album’s second half drags a bit, it demonstrates that the band’s experiments with horns and choirs, as seen in Heima, have paid off, allowing the quartet to widen both the sonic palette and scope of their songs.
From day one, Sigur Rós have demonstrated that affecting compositions are not the exclusive domain of the virtuoso, by layering simple melodies to create songs that are more moving than the sum of their parts. While that statement still rings true, on Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust the band finally sounds fully confident. As a result, the songs feel both looser and more mature than those on previous releases. Sure, major key transcendence is still the destination. It’s just the route that has changed, ever so slightly. Considering that Sigur Rós have always traded in shades of grey, even that subtle change can make for a markedly different journey.
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