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Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Regaining My Hope in Sigur Rós

I must confess that I had lost hope in Sigur Rós after () came out. In comparison to Ágætis Byrjun, Sigur Rós' first major release, the () album was harder to get into: austere, funereal, blank as a pair of empty parentheses. While Ágætis Byrjun grabbed you from the get-go, and took you on a glorious adventure, () was downbeat, and deliberately intimidating. Not only did none of the tracks have names, but they all kind of sounded the same. It was disappointing, because I fancied that I had finally met my kindred spirits in this Reykjavík quartet. I feared that the Victorious Rose had withered, and died, just as I was starting to dig them. That was two years ago, and a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then, to abuse an old cliche... I have been to Iceland, and discovered plenty of fresh talent in that creative powerhouse. Sigur Rós had played their part in my life, or so I thought, but now I required them no more. How wrong was I: all of a sudden, Sigur Rós are back, happier and more accessible than ever! Frontman Jónsi Birgisson is actually singing, in Icelandic at least! And in gratitude, I have to bow deeply, and say: Thank you. Or, more succinctly: Takk..., which is the title of their new album.

Takk, the third album released by Sigur Rós.

Last Sunday I bought the latest Sigur Rós installment Takk... and consumed it, captivated, at the old school desk in my sharehouse. It was such an exhilarating experience, I literally couldn't get out of my chair until it finished. From the opening moments of mesmerizing feedback, which suggest a sun rising over a field of lush lupines, you sense that this is going to be an upbeat record. The sun slowly morphs into the sweep of a North Atlantic lighthouse, slicing through the fog. A beam from that lighthouse swivels your way, sending out fluctuating waves that just melt you, instantaneously. All at once, I felt the melancholy of () blown away, and the curtain rise on a whole new act in the Sigur Rós saga. It was an introduction that, for me at least, called for an instant rewind. So let's rewind it, and do it properly, in this review... one track at a time! With the occasional YouTube video or other media file thrown in, once they become available.

Track 1: Takk... ("Thanks...")
Like a ray of scintillating sunshine, Takk... penetrates deep into your soul, to grant you a Higher Grace. I believe there are saints in India who can enlighten you just by uttering a couple of words in your earshot, or staring you in the eye. Sigur Rós also seem to possess this ability, this Shamanic power, and all you have to do is hear their music, and be transformed! As the introduction begins, it feels like a baby is being born, descending into Being (in the fringes, meanwhile, the sonic equivalent of angelic heraldry hangs.) Why do the introductions to Sigur Rós albums always sound like childbirth? I marveled, hearing this tune play out, the second time I rewound it. Not the birth of an ordinary baby, of course, that would be too mundane. Here we are talking of angel birth!

Track 2: Glósóli ("Glowing Sole")
Glosoli carries forward the euphoria of the intro, but the Fafner-frustrated bass, and restless percussion, suggests some discord... it appears our angel child has taken form, but finds her/himself forsaken in this cold world. Inexplicably, the sun has disappeared (then again, it might just be midwinter in the Land of Fire and Ice!) The bass frets round and around, locked in a holding pattern. The strings do manage to lift off though and before too long we have Jónsi ululating too, yodeling almost, his voice higher than I have ever heard before, almost operatic you might say. He sings, sweepingly:

"Nú vaknar þú
Allt virðist vera breytt
Ég gægist út
En er svo ekki neitt..."

Now you wake up, to find all is different. I look out, but see nothing. Tie my shoes so, and head for the door. Outside on the lava plain, a boy stands waiting. He is decked out in period costume, and carrying a drum. Part Pied Piper, part pirate dwarf, he seems like he's on a mission. He is on a Crusade, no less, and he is calling for volunteers. The drummer boy assembles a posse of kids as the song advances, constructing cairns, sleeping on moss beds, traversing the dark and steaming landscape, before the sun is finally located hiding over what must be the black beach of Vík in southern Iceland. The sound wells, bowed guitar building, and surging through it all is an epic feel, an incredibly epic feel, the kind you might encounter in a Homeric poem, or an Old Norse saga.

At 3:47 the bass guitar grinds into a countdown, lead guitar joining in, cascading into a crescendo which can only be called Heavy Metal, Iron Maiden in slow-mo. Jónsi rides atop the sonic blast, rejoicing:

"Og hér ert þú, fannst mér!
Og hér ert þú, Glósóli!"

On cue, the kids charge up a steep grassy slope, overtaking gulls which bob on the breeze, to the high cliff which towers over the sunlit beach.  As Jónsi hollers they leap off the edge, one by one -- not to fall to their grisly deaths but rather to soar, angelic, into the citrine sky. There is an angel inside everyone of us, that is one of Sigur Rós' recurring motifs... and these kids have lights in their soles. We are Homeric heroes all, living in our own personal saga. Therefore, everything we do is worthy of epic treatment.

Track 3: Hoppípolla ("Jumping in Puddles")
In an interview recently aired on MTV Japan, band members declared Takk... to ne their "happy album". Critics have been predictably quick to label the record as too optimistic and orgasmic, and to question the band's sincerity. I think they are missing the point: the thing about Sigur Rós is that they do emotional music -- their range encompasses everything from ecstasy to sorrow and existential dread. That said, Hoppipolla manages to push it to 11 on the ecstasy scale, which is no mean feat. It is, allegedly, the story of some kids splashing around in a puddle and having fun (once again, a simple theme turned into an opera of epic proportions.) The result is the most beautiful song on the album, or at least one of the most accessible. 

In the video posted above, homage is paid to such juvenile pursuits as tagging buildings, throwing water-bombs, and playing knock-and-run. Typical of Sigur Rós, normal roles get reversed, and the perpetrators of said acts are senior citizens, while the victims are young dudes played by the members of the band (at 1:19, for example, you can see Jónsi working behind the counter in a shop.)

Track 4: Með Blóðnasir ("With a Nosebleed")
The continuation of the previous song by other means, this is also a very inspirational piece in its own right. According to an interpretation I have read online, one of the kids splashing around in Hoppipolla has injured himself/herself and gotten a nosebleed, but nobody cares because everyone is having so much fun. Loops of guitar, keyboards and glockenspiel are tossed around, with Jónsi surfing over the top. Casper on the Sigur Rós message board said: "Með Blóðnasir is just wild! if it were an actual song it'd be the best thing they've ever done!" I just wonder whether by separating this and Hoppípolla into two units, Sigur Rós have deliberately tried to make it harder for both to get commercial radio playtime. Instead of selling out, the band seem to be trying to goad commercial radio into breaking a few of its own rules, and become a bit more experimental.

Track 5: Sé Lest ("Train")
Building straight off of Með Blóðnasir, the glockenspiel is isolated, playing a repeated melody that moves up in fifths all while bouncing in 16th notes. A whimsical vocal line comes over and is followed by bass, percussion and feathery strings (apparently provided by fellow Icelanders amiina). At this stage it is all starting to sound very mid-1990s Björk, as soothing as a lullaby. Near the five-minute mark, multiple tonal instruments balance against each other, with on odd bowed instrument over the back. At 6:30, curiously, we are full-fledged into a night-time polka. That's right, a freaking polka! This is cool -- only Sigur Rós could pull off a transition like that. It leaves me wondering: Is there anything this band can't do?

Track 6: Sæglópur ("Sea Nitwit")
After the whimsical folly of Sé Lest, Sæglópur erupts with a surprising force...  you could describe it a power ballad with its piano intro, geyser blasts of bowed guitar, multiple climaxes, and the endless cries of "þú" ("you"). The trademark Sigur Rós strategy of old was to build up songs over a long time to a devastating climax, like an Mid Atlantic cataclysm. Usually they would start off sluggish and serene and at the 6th minute mark or so, the breakout would take place. That was well and good, but with this new album they have taken things to the next level. Instead of sprawling songs which turn hyper at the end, Sigur Rós have amped up the intensity... they can now pull off multiple climaxes. 11 out of 10, in the Spinal Tap tradition. And as any pornographer will tell, nothing beats milking that money shot multiple times...

Track 7: Milano ("Milan")
Listening to Sigur Rós, you might find yourself wondering: What planet does this music come from? I met an American in Mumbai this year who joked that Jónsi's voice was "out of this world." I agree with him -- Jónsi is indeed an alien, an emissary from another galaxy... but that ain't surprising considering his pedigree. The truth is that Iceland itself is an alien and otherworldly place. Going to Iceland is in fact the next best thing to visiting another planet. It is built atop a dimensional fault line, a gateway between the 'branes. What happens then when Sigur Rós leave their homeland, and vacation in, say, Milan? Well, this song could be the result! It starts off slowly, as you might expect after the dramatic heights of the previous track. There is tender strings action, and a bit of piano too, revolving like a music box. As in Með Blóðnasir  there is a circular structure to this song, each bar measured by a Fafner bass, which ever so slowly accelerates. Tension accumulates, as tension is wont to do. At 3:45 we finally reach bursting point, guitars thrashing, but this is a minor eruption. I guess there wasn't that much energy to release after Sæglópur. All that climaxing will exhaust you, sometimes.

Sigur Rós, somewhere in Iceland.

Track 8: Gong ("Gong")
Mournful strings commence this journey, which are presently joined by guitars, drums, bass and finally a frantic piano. Jónsi is like a wolf howling at the sky, supported by a ghostly choir (quite probably, a choir of one.) Grapevine considers that this is "close to a melodic rock song, until it breaks into the big drama after the four-minute mark." In my own opinion, Gong is one kick-ass track -- a new direction for the band, a climax upon a climax, and another highlight of an album so crammed full of highlights.

Track 9: Andvari ("Zephyr")
Reviewers haven't cottoned on to it, but I swear this is another version of the same dirge which dragged on eight times on the () album. This is the 9th rendition of the song if I am correct, and I in my opinion it is the best. It is also the most moving moment of an already powerful album. As Gong retreats, guitars, music box and glocks pick up a sentimental melody, joined by the bass. At length Jónsi enters the fray, droning in what, suspiciously, sounds like Hopelandic, Uh-oh! you might think, remembering the bleak days of ()... Are we back on that kick? To be honest though, you don't need to understand Sigur Rós' lyrics to feel the meaning, and there sure seems to be a lot of emotion crammed into his wailing. At 1:50, Jónsi surprises me by singing (in English!)  the short phrase, "I love you." Hackneyed perhaps, but it brought tears to my eyes on the first and second hearings, for there is a gratitude in his admission -- I could imagine that he was addressing me personally, or at the very least the loyal fans of the band. Giving thanks, in the true spirit of this record. I might be wrong... others claim this is a love song dedicated to his new boyfriend. I didn't even know he was gay!

Track 10: Svo Hljótt ("So Quietly")
As its name might imply, Takk...'s penultimate track starts off restrained, with somber aspirations. but soon builds into one final banger -- a tornado, geyser, or the tractor beam from a UFO in a cornfield somewhere (draw your own allusions here.) The rock bible NME claimed: "Choice cut Svo Hljótt sounds like the bit in Lord Of The Rings when Gandalf dies reinterpreted by operatic mythical winged beasts." Translated into English, the lyrics are more prosaic, but also quite revealing: 

"I thank you for the hope you gave me
I thank you for the hope..."

When we are lost at sea and the sun refuses to shine, we embodied beings need a guiding star. Suddenly I realize that () was our communal long night of the soul, the wilderness we had to traverse in order to arrive at Takk..., this oasis of plenty. With Jónsi as our mad Pied Piper (or the drummer who can shatter glass with his voice.) As the magnitude of this revelation sinks in, my only rational response is to bow low and proclaim, "Thank you Sigur Rós, for the hope you gave me. Thank you for the joy." I leaned on you, and you leaned on me. What goes around comes around, and every tribute is returned.

Track 11: Heysátan ("Hay Stack")
Heysátan unfolds like a hymn, each note constructing a church stone by stone, wall by wall, pew by pew. Inside this sacred place, the atmosphere is that of a wake (albeit a rather jubilant one). Jónsi is either playing the role of a priest, or a demonic choirboy. Grapevine has the last word on this fitting finale: "A refrain of key notes of one chord, we hear horns, plucked guitar and keyboards all combining for airy but understated effect. Jónsi is most clear in the vocals here, sounding, dare we say it, like an Icelandic Billy Corgan..." 

Takk... is one serious mindtrip, more of a drug than an album, and it is reminiscent of the Múm works that I have reviewed on this site. The cover of the CD (pictured above), designed to resemble a yellowed Victorian novel, also recalls Múm's album covers. Difficult to say though whether Sigur Rós directly imitated Múm in this respect, or whether both bands are merely reflecting the current trends in Nordic graphic design. Whatever, this is a very Icelandic album, and for lovers of Iceland such as myself, it is great to notice all the indigenous touches on this production.
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