In Brief: Despite the up-tempo surprises, this disc never quite captures the “otherworldly” beauty of the band’s past albums.
Was it really over six years ago that I first became curious about the music of Sigur Rós? It’s hard to believe how easily they went from “I don’t know, that might be a little too far out there for my tastes” to becoming a mainstay of my late night playlists. Before 2002, I might simply have seen them as an answer to a trivia question, a way to one-up people who could only name Björk when asked to list musicians from Iceland. Even as I became a fan of their “breakthrough album” Ágætis Byrjun and the beautiful nonsense that followed it on the album ( ), I figured they were a musical best-kept secret. I had discovered them through a few folks “in the know” here at Epinions, and fellow music junkies who liked to dig deep into the fringes of their curiosities seemed to like ’em as well. But no way this group’s long, droning, icy meditations sung in either a foreign or completely made-up language would ever catch on. This stuff was too “artsy”, and some might argue indulgent, to ever make any mainstream appearances. I was intrigued enough by this band’s ability to take me to strange, unexplored places that I found myself ironically unprepared for what would happen next.
Takk… came along in 2005, and this release streamlined their sound. It marked the beginning of a “thaw” of sorts in their icy, post-nuclear winter soundscape, unabashedly bringing back to orchestral elements from Ágætis Byrjun and pumping up the crescendoes to bring the audience to an even happier place when a song finally arrived at the “good part”. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right place for it at that point in my life – the album struck me as predictable and not nearly as adventurous as what I considered the band capable of. But when it sunk in, I found it to be a deep well of gorgeously constructed compositions that I couldn’t help but go back to time and time again. Takk… was moody at times, but it broke from the band’s traditional sound by not doing as much navel-gazing. I couldn’t understand the lyrics for squat, of course, so who knew if they were singing about something really demented underneath the euphoric exterior. But I grew to related to the sound of that album more and more as my own life transitioned into a period of relative calm in ’06 and ’07, after what was mostly a year of chaos. Takk… was now a worthy soundtrack. Apparently Hollywood thought so to, given the prominent placement of the song “Hoppípolla” in just about every film trailer known to man (most notably Slumdog Millionaire and pretty much the exact same snippets of the song for Disney’s Earth, which I realize is culled from a BBC miniseries that predates Slumdog, but jeez Disney, way to be unoriginal!)
The thaw apparently continued in 2008, with a new album that promised at first glance to completely redefine the Sigur Rós sound. With a mouthful of a title, Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust (which roughly translates to “With a buzz in our ears we play endlessly”, but since I can’t pronounce that, I’ll just take my cue from the whimsical cover that I’m slightly embarassed to display in my CD wallet and call it The Naked Butts Album) found itself at immediate odds with the chilly, ambient, and deeply textured work that the band had done in the past. Gone were the droning electric guitars and the sweeping walls of white noise, and in their place remained a mostly tranquil set of songs, many of which were based entirely around acoustic instruments. The real shocker came in the form of the album’s opening tracks, which were shockingly upbeat and cheery for Sigur Rós. Clearly this band had had enough of the stereotype that being from Iceland meant their music had to sound cold and brooding all the time. It felt like they had something to prove. And while the move towards more of an acoustic sound wasn’t completely unheralded (the second disc of their outtakes and remakes collection Hvarf-Heim found the band reinventing old songs in acoustic form), it led the band to such oddities as a lead single that actually didn’t need to be edited for time! Suddenly humor and giddiness were part of the spectrum of emotions expressed on a Sigur Rós album. The album was appropriately released right at the onset of summer – it seemed to suggest a breathtaking peek at the landscape that had been covered up by snow and ice for most of the year. Not a bad thing at all – but this certainly led to false expectations and an all-around uneven album, considering that the back half contains some of the band’s sparsest work yet.
It’s taken me almost a year to review Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust for good reasons – it’s one of those discs that I keep picking up, enjoying at first, finding my attention wandering midway through, and then putting down for several months after listening to it a few times. I feel like it’s taken me this long to truly digest the whole thing. I’m not one of those guys who hears something poppy and catchy and expects a band formerly knowing for being very meditative and experimental to suddenly churn out a bunch of upbeat hits. I would have never fallen in with Sigur Rós if that had been the case – slow tempos and taking a long time to get to “the point” are kind of their trademarks. But what I miss here are the layers. You’ll still hear orchestral accompaniment, and even more players than have ever contributed to a single Sigur Rós song at one point, but stripping the core band members’ sound back to the simplicitly of acoustic guitar and pianos, plus the usual bass and drums, with little or no programming or overdubbing to be found, means that a lot of the texture is gone. There was an otherworldly feeling that occuiped the space between the notes on their old songs, that took me into a hazy, dreamlike place that I figured couldn’t exist in the real world. Here, the music is often quite beautiful, but sometimes so plainspoken as to feel like it’s just making stops on a group tour, standing at lovely little viewpoints with convenient signage for the tourists, and never really digging deep into the nooks and crannies of the landmarks that it vists. The album is an escape, but outside of a small handful of tracks, it doesn’t quite feel like an adventure.
Immediately recognizable and yet nothing like anything else in the Sigur Rós canon, the album gets off to a splendid start with a whole lot of banging on drums, frantically syncopated acoustic guitar strumming, and giddy “la-la-la”s, all working together to create a song whose rhythm is nearly impossible to follow and yet which turns out to be one of the band’s most addictive. Even not knowing the language (and yes, it’s actual Icelandic this time instead of the “gobbledygook” that the title cheekily refers to), the “la-la-la”s make it easy for any bonehead to figure out where the chorus is and sing along if desired. It runs a scant three minutes (seriously, Sigur Rós has done interludes longer than this, but I ain’t complaining) before coming to its sudden, pounding halt. It’s so simple on one level and yet pure genius on another. (And then there’s the issue of the music video, which has been called everything from “brilliant” to “pornographic trash”. Let’s just say that if you blush at the site of this album’s cover photo, you probably shouldn’t inquire any further.)
2. Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur
A cute little horn fanfare and some insistent, banging piano chords announce another up-tempo track, this time one which marches and stomps and flies its flag proudly like some sort of cheerful parade. (The title translates to “Within Me a Lunatic Sings”. I can’t argue with that!) The strings and horns are in full force here, proudly announcing the arrival of a band that seems to want to be known as the world’s happiest. While this song has its reflective bits where the piano and glockenspiel take over, it’s mostly centered around the band’s rhythm section (drummer Orri Páll Dýrason and bassist Goggi Hólm) and the accompanying orchestra players. It’s great to hear Sigur Rós completely rethinking the way that they use the array of instruments in their aresnal, and there’s another great lead-up to the climax here, but the melodic build of the song to get there might be a tad repetitive (yes, even for a short and upbeat song). It kind of peters out at the end just where you’d expect a grand conclusion, too. So it’s a third base run instead of a homer.
3. Góðan Daginn
You’d expect a song whose title means “Good Day” to register as pleasant and little more. That’s pretty much a spot-on description of this mid-tempo track, which shuffles along nicely enough with the acoustic guitar gently plucking away and Jónsi Birgisson’s clear, high-pitched voice being the aural equivalent of a big, satisfied smile while the other guys add their own pleasant vocal echoes in the background. There’s even a bit of the “background ambience” that hung over past Sigur Rós albums – it’s noticeably less distorted and droning, but it’s still there, just to make the proceedings slightly more ethereal. Despite that, there’s still not much in terms of variance or dynamics here. It’s like a morning greeting from a stranger – you smile and maybe feel a brief bit of warmth for a brief few seconds, but then you go on about your day and forget about it. (I felt the same way about the title track from Ágætis Byrjun, actually, and since that’s a bit of a fan favorite, maybe I’m just way off base here.)
4. Við Spilum Endalaust
The first of two title tracks might help to establish a theme for the album, for all I know, but not having a reliable translation in front of me, all I can really tell you is that “We Play Endlessly” doesn’t seem to describe this track. (It describes several of the band’s other songs, just not this one.) It’s actually one of the more brief and fast-paced ones, leading off with this bass and accordion, of all things, cutting to the chase before too long and hitting us with another cheery chorus reminiscent of track two. The horn section ascends with the melody toward the sky. It’s quite nice. But it doesn’t stick in my memory for very long afterwards.
You’re really getting two songs for the price of one in this monolithic, nine minute long track, and normally I’d argue that this is a good thing. But there’s a part of that cries foul when he realizes that, as cool as the eventual climax to this song is, it seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the long, dirge-like lead up that precedes it for a good four or five minutes. The sheer nakedness of Jonsi’s voice against the faint glow of wispy keyboards (or guitar distortion, or whatever that effect is) immediately brings to mind old Sigur Rós, perhaps for the first time on the album. It’s vulnerable and pretty and everything, but there’s even less structure to it than past songs like “Heysátan” or the quiet parts of “The Death Song” (track number 7 from the parenthesis album). Jonsi wanders and wanders like a lost choir boy in a huge cathedral, only to eventually wander outside and collide with another huge parade. The shift in dynamics is sudden and actually quite breathtaking – the bass picks up out of nowhere and suddenly drums are crashing frantically and the band is taking a sprint towards the finish line as if their very lives depended on it. It’s almost as euphoric as the crashing coda of “The Pop Song” (parenthesis track 8), even though this bit is entirely instrumental. I’m willing to bet it’d make one hell of an encore selection in concert, too (its English title is quite apt in that regard). But I feel like it’s cheating to tack such a beautiful ending on to a solemn beginning that has absolutely no musical cues to lead into it. It makes it hard to judge the song as a whole – split this to two tracks and I could simply say I dislike the one and love the other. Splice them together like this, and I rack my brains trying to figure out why the first half is necessary as a prelude to the second half (or just holding down the “fast forward” button to get to it on my less patient days). The net result is: Credit for great finish + Debit for slow start = Reasonably positive rating for a song that is good, but not great. (The whistling at the end is a nice touch – apparently somebody whistling that melody is where the idea for the song originally came from.)
6. Með Suð í Eyrum
Title track, part 2, isn’t musically linked to track 4 in any discernable way – it’s more of a mid-tempo track built around Kjartan Sveinsson‘s rolling piano and some uncharacteristic (for this album, anyway) sound effects that munch up the drums and make them sound like they’re tumbling though dirt and static. This one’s a happy balance between the band’s newfound love of upbeat moods and their more reflective, sound-collage sort of stuff – it’s nice to hear the layers subtly working their way in one by one, turning a song that seems unassuming at first into a lovely cascade of beautiful music that sort of sneaks up on you. There is no “climax” in the classic sense here – this track manages to be somewhat memorable without having to strain toward the high heavens to make sure its melody rattles around in your head afterwards. (I like it when Sigur Rós strains toward high heaven, but a few moments interspersed through this album do prove that they can handle “subtle” well when they’re not trying too hard to overstate the dead space between the notes.)
7. Ára Bátur
This is the track that will probably get me the most hate mail from Sigur Rós fans, since a great many of them seem to have had a highly emotional response to this gentle ballad, which aims to be another epic due to its nine-minute length. I can’t deny that it does a good job of giving me a mental image – the song is named “Row Boat”, and the tranquil piano and utter solitude of Jonsi’s voice at the beginning make it easy for me to picture him setting off into uncharted waters all by his lonesome. It’s more structured than the first half of “Festival”, since the piano maintains a slow but definite rhythm, and after a few minutes of quiet sailing through the grey mist, the sounds of a choir and a string section and a horn section and a timpani and crashing cymbals and pretty much all of the players that could be dragged in for a studio session at one point or another begin to fade in. I can’t deny that it’s gorgeous. But it’s also so obvious of an approach, compared to the way that this band has built something minimal into something monstrous in the past, that I can’t help but feel a bit manipulated here. It might be the way that the same simple, major-key melody is looped over and over as the various players emote and swell all over it. Jonsi seems to be practically at the point of tears, his high falsetto nearly breaking as he sings each fragile word. I get what he must have been feeling when he performed this, but I can’t shake the feeling that they’re trying a little too hard to make me feel that way. Even in the past when I felt that one of the band’s “slow and pretty” songs dragged on for too long (see Takk‘s “Mílanó” or “Andvari”), there was something otherworldly about them, some sense of “a dream upon waking” that I could reach out toward but not touch, that I couldn’t take with me back into the real world. Here, the music is pretty, but it’s not “out there” enough. And that makes me feel a bit impatient with this one.
I really do hope you liked the climax of that previous song, because that’s the last “big” moment you’re going to get for the entire rest of the album. The parades are gone now, the confetti has all fallen to the ground, and the streets are deserted. You won’t hear so much as a single percussion instrument being struck for the rest of the album, because from here in, Sigur Rós is apparently attempting to work on the smallest scale possible. Here, that’s not a bad thing – I had to isolate this track from the sitting water surrounding it to really appreciate the simple beauty of it. A pair of classical guitars and some strings in the background are the only discernible musical accompaniment here (aside from Jonsi’s voice, of course), and for a song called “Weeds”, I suppose it makes sense – we’ve left the big, heavenly, open sea of the previous track and now we’re lazily floating along some river in the backwoods. This is a good “chamber music” experiment for the band – I wouldn’t want them to be all-acoustic, all the time, but the guitar geek in me who still doesn’t know how to fingerpick all that well despite the years of practice thinks this is phenomenal performance – skilled, but never overstated.
I’m sorry, but this track is just plain redundant after “Ára Bátur”. Its slow, repetitive piano chords echo the opening of that song, except that this one never opens up into something bigger. It never “goes anywhere”. It’s a dead stop in a distant harbor, and it illustrates how easily this album can reveal flaws in the Sigur Rós song recipe – find a drop-dead gorgeous chord progression, hint at it with as few notes as possible, and repeat over the course of several minutes, eventually building to a climax. Take away the climax, and this doesn’t work nearly as well for me. Even if there had been a big ending to this one, it would just feel more redundant. (The string section certainly tries to make the tear ducts well up with sympathetic response, as does another fragile vocal performance from Jonsi, but it’s aborted before they can really get anywhere.)
OK, so earlier I was annoyed that the band tacked two unrelated piece of music together and called them a single song. Now I’m annoyed by the reverse – they’ve gone to the trouble of isolating this as a separate track when it’s really just an even more minimal coda tacked onto “Fljótavík” (basically the slow echo of its melody, run through some sort of reverb or other type of gentle distortion), a song which was already pushing its luck. Combined, the two tracks run a little less than six minutes – about the average amount of time for a Sigur Rós song to make its point without overstaying its welcome. I’d feel a bit ripped off if I’d had to pay a separate dollar for this track on iTunes.
11. All Alright
For all of the buzz surrounding the novel idea of Sigur Rós finally acknowledging their fanbase in the UK and North America and finally recording a track in English, I have to say that it was all a lot of hype over something. This whimper of a finale manages to be even more sparse than the barely-alive tracks that preceded it, and that takes some doing! I don’t mind minimalism in practice, but the little, tinkling piano notes here hang out in thin air for so long that it’s uncomfortable. Jonsi is so quiet and penitent here that I honestly forget to listen for the English words at first – one could easily mistake his mushy pronunciation for more of the usual gibberish before realizing that, just this one time, you weren’t imagining things when you thought you heard him whimper “I want him to know” or “I sit here with you” or whatever phrase finally clued you in. I can understand the sense of regret here – Jonsi’s on the verge of confessing some very bad things that he has done to his lover, and he leaves the guy’s response open to interpretation, simply describing them sitting in silence after the truth comes out. It’d be a heartbreaking finale, if it felt like a finale at all. But it’s a bridge to nowhere, a musical thought bubble that trails off into the night, which makes for one hell of a shocking contrast if you let the CD cycle back around to “Gobbledigook”. Long story short, it doesn’t work.
The emotional impact of these songs upon Jonsi and the rest of these band clearly had a lot of magnitude despite how lightly the songs are played, so part of me feels bad trashing the end of this album when I know the guys practically had to rend their souls to get it all on tape. It’s just too much of a departure coming all at once – the sheer weight of all of those sparse songs bunched together kind of causes most of them to cancel on another out. The imbalance between those tracks and the brashly upbeat ones makes the album feel downright schizophrenic, sometimes even within a single track, which is why I can’t regard Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust as anything more than a slightly above average piece of work when taken as a whole. It has brilliant ideas here and there that were beautifully executed. The band isn’t lacking for creativity. But I hope this trend towards only the “natural” sounds doesn’t last too long – because this band seems to be at their best when they embrace their ability to create something that sounds like it came from a universe other than our own.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur $1.50
Góðan Daginn $.50
Við Spilum Endalaust $.50
Með Suð í Eyrum $1
Ára Bátur $.50
All Alright $0
Jón Þór (Jónsi) Birgisson: Lead vocals, guitars, keyboards, harmonica, banjo
Georg (Goggi) Hólm: Bass guitar, glockenspiel
Kjartan (Kjarri) Sveinsson: Keyboards, piano, organs, guitar, flute, tin whistle, oboe, banjo, backing vocals
Orri Páll Dýrason: Drums, keyboards
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.