Sígur Ros: ( )

Matt Cibula

Sigur Rós


US Release Date: 2002-10-29
UK Release Date: 2002-10-28

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:

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.