In Brief: A memorable solo debut despite its flaws. Bet you never knew the dude from Sigur Rós could be this deliriously happy.
Do you ever hear a vocalist singing in a foreign language and think, “Gee, that sounds pretty/happy/haunting/deep. I wonder what he’s really saying?” I’ve wondered this many times, and since often the foreign language I’m hearing bits of is Spanish, French, or something else that I’ve either studied or picked up a few stray words of by osmosis, so I can sort of get the gist of it. But I don’t know any Icelandic, or any language even remotely close to it, so the music of Sigur Rós has generally been a mystery to me, as I’d assume it would be for most fans. So I did what any curious person would do – I went looking for translations. On some occasions, I discovered that some of those hauntingly pretty vocal cries (the band is known for their long, icy, brooding passages gradually building toward an intense emotional release) were better left untranslated. Sometimes it’s because poetic sentiments in one language can sound choppy when translated into another, at least when it’s just a fan making a best guess. Sometimes it’s because you genuinely don’t want to know what sort of weirdness is on the mind of a band like this that deliberately tests the limits of the musical form known as the “song”. And sometimes, it’s because it just plain can’t be translated. Jónsi Birgisson is known for singing in his own, made-up language, which he’s confessed is just a bunch of repeating vocal sounds, not intended to have any coherent meaning. Sometimes it’s best to let the sheer sound of a man’s voice (androgynous as it may be) determine the meaning, rather than any actual words.
But, for those who don’t quite have the patience for that sort of stuff, Jónsi’s throwing us a bone with his solo debut, simply titled Go. That’s an English word implying motion, and surprisingly, not the first of a sequence of baby-talk syllables. Having put Sigur Rós on ice (har har) for the foreseeable future, he’s decided to strike out on his own, a move which you’d expect to lead to an even more intimate setting than the stark acoustics that dominated the latter half of his band’s most recent album, Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust, but which surprisingly turns back in the other direction. Jónsi apparently likes his walls of sound, which means that a number of his songs explode with big drums and electronic noises and baroque instrumentation. And aside from two tracks which revert to his native Icelandic, he’s singing in English, often unmasking the ethereal and making it more like the everyday in the process. This is both a good and a bad move, as it makes the songs arguably more “relatable”, while also demonstrating that the man’s skills lie more in the sounds he makes than in the verbal meaning he tries to convey. Sigur Rós fans probably figured that out with “All Alright”, the snail-paced closing track from… that Sigur Rós album whose title I’m not typing out again, which implied much by saying little, but didn’t quite live up to the hype of being the band’s first English song. Go is arguably at its best when the music is dense enough to keep you from paying too much attention to the lyrics, which aren’t bad, but also aren’t as lovably oddball as those of fellow Icelandic English-speaker Björk. (I only bring her up to demonstrate that having to think in a foreign language need not be a permanent roadblock to great songwriting.) Or when you can’t understand it at all, though at such times, it runs the risk of sounding like warmed-over Sigur Rós.
There’s also the problem of Go being nine tracks long. We’re not even talking epic-length Sigur Rós stuff here – Jónsi has a few sweeping ballads that take a little time to unfold, but the average song length is still between four and five minutes, with nothing running over six. Sigur Rós has never skimped on album length – even when there are only ten or fewer tracks to be found, you’ll have album highlights that run seven or more minutes and are enjoyable for their entire length. Go has the advantage of each track being a distinct song in its own right – none are short interludes or anything like that – but it’s also a bit schizophrenic in terms of style, and there are two songs near the end that seem to deliberately blur the listener’s perception of which is which, resulting in an album that feels incomplete. It starts with a bang – some of these tracks have great single potential (even though I can already predict that pop radio will give him a snowball’s chance in hell due to his odd, high-pitched cooing). But it ends with a bit of a whimper. That’s an awful lot like how I feel about the last Sigur Rós album, so let’s just say that you shouldn’t base your expectations on a single track here any more than you based them on “Gobbledigook” there.
All of that said, Go‘s best moments reveal a man with a colorful artistic vision, many shades of which we didn’t get to see on his band’s recordings. It works well as a reintroduction to the man after ten-plus years (for some fans; I’ve been on board for almost eight) of thinking we knew him. As solo debuts go, this one doesn’t have me saying “Don’t quit the dayjob”, so there’s some potential here.
1. Go Do
We’ve learned over the years that Jónsi loves sampling and manipulating the sound of his voice, so while the opening vocal snippets might sound weird to the uninitiated, it’s actually a sign of warm familiarity to Sigur Rós fans. Most of the track, however, is almost antithetical to the majority of the Sigur Rós canon, with a flute gleefully piping away and a pounding rhythm accelerating the song straight into Happy Town. Amidst this joyful march of overlapping noises, Jónsi encourages to go out and make, create, basically throw a monkey wrench into everyday society and leave a mark on the world. And it’s awesome. I’d probably laugh myself silly at any other songwriter who took himself halfway seriously if he tried to tell me “We should always know that we can do anything”, but the reason this works for Jónsi is partially because I’m willing to give him some leeway on his use of English, and partially because he’s built a song that makes this otherwise insipid sentiment a lot easier to believe.You can’t get away with saying stuff like that unless the music is deliciously over-the-top, which it totally is.
2. Animal Arithmetic
This one might be even more over the top, starting off pleasantly enough with what sounds like a harpsichord, but then quickly taking off at warp speed with a furious, cluttered beat, and some of the best motor-mouth singing I’ve heard in a while. (And yes, it’s singing, not rapping. Some of my fellow critics really embarrass me when describing stuff like this.) The song would be as worthy of memorization for the sake of spitting the lyrics back out at my speaker as a sort of challenge to myself, if it weren’t for the utterly silly list of daily tasks Jónsi powers through – “Wake up, cut my hair/Making food disappear/Riding bikes, making out/Elephants run you down…” Wait, say what? I don’t know how they do it in Iceland, but the whole elephant thing? Not normal here in America. Despite the happy weirdness (and a verse in Icelandic that I can’t pretend to understand), which I would normally enjoy, the unbridled optimism of a statement like “We should all be so alive!” doesn’t quite work for me here. For the most part, he’s describing the daily routine. Later in the song, there’s a repeating refrain that describes seeing simple beauty in the world around us – the trees and sky and beaches and such – which is nice, but a bit too generic to be as exhilirating as he wants it to be. This one’s a blast for the pure sound of it, but a good example of how listening more closely to Jónsi’s lyrics can sometimes wreck a song for the listener.
When I’m in more of a somber mood (you know, the kind of mood in which a person might reach for a Sigur Rós album), this is the track that really does it for me. Its simple, syncopated piano chords (which remind me of Sufjan Stevens‘ instrumental track “Redford”, actually) serve the dual purpose of setting a more reflective tune while also throwing the listener off of the song’s actual rhythm. They fool us into expecting a triple meter when in fact the song’s in simple 4/4 (also compare to Radiohead‘s “Pyramid Song”). This becomes clear when the drums break in, adding a bit of aggression to a song about a person who seems to smother Jónsi – perhaps they mean well, but their actions only proceed to destroy everything around him. The strings and percussion elevate the music to a striking crescendo near the end, and then the song backs down to just a solitary piano for the final, solemn words: “I wonder if I’m allowed just ever to be.” The melody here is a gorgeous one – it’s like he found a new home for the tune from Takk‘s “Svo Hljótt” that gave it more of a dramatic context instead of just letting basic repetition do the emotional dirty work.
4. Boy Lilikoi
Wow, first Mew writes a song about Hawaii, and now Jónsi name-checks the Hawaiian word for passionfruit? Methinks these Scandinavian singers are obsessed with the tropics. Not that I’m complaining. Jónsi uses this tasty fruit as an ingredient in another tasty concoction of stomping drums, skittering programmed beats, and a veritable parade of instruments celebrating a giddy romance with his partner. It’s another one of those deliriously fun musical celebrations that gets brought down somewhat by paying attention to the lyrics – not because it’s a love song about two boys (I got over being shocked by that sort of thing a while ago), but more because the semi-suggestive lyrics are just plain awkward. “You run, you’re free, you climb endless trees, you reignite” – cute. “You growl, you howl, you show your teeth, you bite, it’s alright” – TOO MUCH INFORMATION. (I’d say the same if this were a song about a boy/girl relationship – a few of Björk’s come to mind – so don’t start with the homophobia stuff, K?) I have to give Jónsi a lot of credit for his creative descriptions of his lover’s appearance and personality here – the song’s just oozing with fantasy metaphors, most of them just lovey-dovey and not explicitly sexual. The music definitely communicates the appropriate mood, and Jónsi’s 4 for 4 on that count so far.
5. Sinking Friendships
This one’s more of a sad song – not that you’d know it from the chirpy vocal snippets or the warm piano melody. It’s the first time Jónsi’s decided to intentionally contrast the lyrics and music here – and there’s nothing wrong with that. (For all I know, Sigur Rós could have written plenty of dark, foreboding-sounding songs about being in love, or deliriously happy-sounding songs about death and pain.) As you might guess from the title, the lyrics are all about relationships gone bad, intentionally left to drown in the cold ocean because it’s just too much work to rescue them. Despite that, I’d listened to the song several times before I even caught that Jónsi was flat out telling us “I’m singing a sad tune”. Hard to tell when it builds to such a lovely crescendo, glockenspiels and flutes and such chiming away. The music just says “elation” even though he’s pondering a great loss. “No one knows you ’til it’s over”, he laments, and it’s hard not to wonder what sort of a tear-jerker this could have been as a full-fledged Sigur Rós dirge stretching out to eight minutes or something ridiculous like that.
Jónsi reverts to Icelandic for the full length of this song, which opens the back half of the record with its unassuming mid-tempo mood. You could easily escape this for Sigur Rós even though it doesn’t quite go for the same “slow burn” – the colors are more muted and nothing seems designed to leap out of the speakers, but it moves along at a brisk enough pace and there’s a slight bump in the middle where the song comes to a sort of crescendo. I know I’m having issues being specific about this one – truthfully because it often just sort of pleasantly floats by me. Now that I listen more carefully, there’s a string section, which is a nice touch. But it’s definitely a break in tone from the surrounding songs.
7. Around Us
I’d forgive you for losing your place in the album at this point, since Jónsi actually name-drops the title of the next song in the first verse, almost setting up this happy little drum march as the first half of a two-parter. I sure am saying “happy” a lot, but I can’t help it, since most of this album is doing its darndest to turn up the corners of my mouth. This one’s no different with its exhortations to a younhg man, encouraging him to spread his wings and fly, and to never lose focus on the task of finding a true home. The journey to this special place called ‘home” is described in fanciful, story-book like terms, and the song reaches another delightful crescendo when Jónsi changes up the rhythm a bit just to give an already soaring chorus a little extra spring in its step. Rather long fade-out here, though – it might be the one drawback to this song. At five minutes and change, this track and the next one are just about tied in the competition to be the album’s longest – and by Sigur Rós standards, this is actually quite economical.
8. Grow Till Tall
Part 2 of this little coming-of-age story is only really connected to the first part by way of the lyrics, again referencing the title, but this time looking past the transition to adulthood and almost warning the youngster not to grow up too fast – “You’ll really want to grow and grow till tall/They all, in the end, will fall.” That’s his minimalistic way of saying we all have to die eventually, so savor youth while you’ve got it, I guess. The song is notable for its restraint, since it’s almost all vocals and background ambience until the emotion swells to its high point, and then it becomes an odd electronic march, almost as if the drum machines are a big tsunami swallowing the listener. It reminds me of past experiments like “Glósóli” or “Hjartað Hamast” where the volume levels were intentionally pushed into the red just to make things feel chaotic and beyond human control. This eventually collapses into a brief coda of messy static, and then we’re out.
I swear I’ve heard slow, solemn horns like this in a Sigur Rós song before – but then the horn section was a huge part of Björk’s Volta, so my memory could be playing tricks on me. Tonally, this one actually reminds me of “Heysátan”, the closing song from Takk… that scaled back the band’s sound for a simple focus on fluid guitar sounds (or was it keyboard?) against a stark, silent background. Here, the horns are the calm sea upon which Jónsi floats, seemingly dissipating into the distant fog as he once again since in his native tongue. There’s even a dramatic pause to make you think the album is over and then a few more measures of those same drawn-out notes from the horn section – yeah, this is totally “Heysátan” written for a brass ensemble.
With that being the entirety of the album, you can probably see why I’m a bit torn. It’s a quality performance through and through, but it’s got a few moments where I really wonder why Jónsi needed to go solo to express these ideas, given how much they mirror the work of the band he fronted. Throughout most of it, I can see the sharp difference in mood, and I can understand why Sigur Rós wouldn’t want to sustain the jump-up-and-down-happy stuff for the better part of an album. It just isn’t them, aside from the odd experiment. So I can see the value in Jónsi striking out on his own, and I guess I’m just wishing for more of a complete, cohesive statement of who he is apart from those other guys. He’s got a good six or seven tracks here that help paint the picture, which makes Go feels like more of an EP released to whet our appetites (the kind of thing that might have a solo reinterpretation of a song or two by his old band tacked on to help bridge the old and new) than a full-fledged solo debut. I’ll give him time. Depending on how long it’ll take the members of Sigur Rós to figure out how to function together again, he might have ample time to explore his muse on his own, and there’s more than enough here to demonstrate the potential for a great solo career.
But first he’s gotta figure out which language he’s most comfortable writing in, and stick with it.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Go Do $1.50
Animal Arithmetic $1
Boy Lilikoi $1.50
Sinking Friendships $1
Around Us $1.50
Grow Till Tall $1
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Originally published on Epinions.com.