07 January 2009

a less-than-totally-transatlantic listening experience (part 2 of the 2008 retrospective)

When I was young (younger, anyway), I didn't go seeking out new and interesting music. I was more or less happy to listen to whatever variation on alternative rock radio I could find, and pick up recommendations from my older, wiser acquaintances (be they friend, relative, or stranger who liked my Pearl Jam shirt). I did not, to use a term I certainly cannot take credit for coining, "own" my music experience (or any sort, really. When you're in junior high, you don't "own" much).

That changed for me, in a stunningly original turn of events, when I got to college. Worlds upon worlds of music existed outside of my limited, private school experience thus far. Music meant to wash over you as the tide washes over sand, music that crashes into you with the force of a hit-and-run. This posting will deal with one band that produces the former.

I wish I could remember how I first heard about Sigur Ros, but I can't. All I recall is seeing the cover image of their album () on Amazon.com (a link from a page concerning a Godspeed You! Black Emperor album, I believe - can't remember how I learned about Godspeed, either), and then purchasing that same album at the university's bookstore the next day (one of the few remaining CDs in their soon-to-be-liquidated collection, bizarrely enough). Listening to it on the bus ride back to Denver that afternoon, I fell in love (with the album - but especially the sixth track, which I later learned is called "E-Bow"). Afterwards, w
e were off to the proverbial races.

I contented myself with what I referred to as "The Parenthetical Album" for a while, until Takk..., which I believe is their masterpiece, came out. It's a case study in pacing, in build-climax-release (I know that sounds dirty) songwriting, in making something that's really and truly beautiful, that can transcend any sort of barriers that might have been inherent in its creation (in this case, see "language"). "Saeglopur" is gorgeous whether you understand Icelandic or not.

This brings us to #4 on my list of favorite albums for 2008: Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust.

It's tough to imagine Sigur Ros putting out an album that's anything less than majestic, that doesn't add another few pages to the chapter that they have all to themselves in the book of music; put another way, I doubt they could ever make a "forgettable album," and they certainly didn't do that here. If there was one way I could think to describe Med Sud, it would be as the happy Sigur Ros album.

Don't get me wrong, now, for I've had more than my fair share of joyful moments listening to their other albums, but that's more due to the epic sweep of the music, my unabashed enjoyment of it, rather than the overarching tone of the pieces themselves. That changed with the very first moment of Med Sud, with as un-Sigur Ros of a song as I'd ever expected them to make: "Gobbledigook."

In bright, shining contrast to the tightly constructed, string-and-keys heavy music that I've come to associate with Sigur Ros, "Gobbledigook" is very nearly a beautiful mess of a song, bringing Jonsi Birgisson's voice to the song's very forefront, over a pronounced guitar and percussion section. It's about three minutes long, which is something of a rarity for a Sigur Ros song, but it's also in possession of a tone that's not simply ethereal and gorgeous; indeed, it's straight-up joyful. That sets the stage for a very different, yet totally familiar, Sigur Ros album.

I could easily see every song on this album as celebration songs, of one sort or another ("Fljotavik" - for my money, the most Sigur Ros-y song on the record - wouldn't fit the same sort of event that "Festival" would, and neither one of them are much like "Vid Spilum Endalaust," except that their Sigur Ros DNA is pretty apparent), which is something of a drastic departure from music that could mostly only be described as the audio accompaniment to a trek across, or over, the band's native land of Iceland.

"Festival" and "Ara Batur" deserve some special singling-out as the two most traditional Sigur Ros songs on the album (the two longest, not surprisingly). While "Festival" dispenses somewhat with the to-be-expected "slow burn"-style build that I love ever so much (around the 4:30 mark, the percussion kicks in and the song never looks back), I like the fact that there's so much of the classic Sigur Ros, and the "new" (if I can really legitimately call it that), as well. Again, I'm going back to the joy (dare I say, "playfulness?") that's rampant throughout Med Sud, only here it's painted with that fragile, ice-like sheen that I expect to cover most of their songs (except for the drummer crashing through over and over again. I think Orri Dyrason's drums are as pronounced as they're ever going to get here - he reminds me of Jimmy Chamberlain a bit). "Ara Batur" is straight out of the Sigur Ros playbook, but I defy anyone to not feel on the verge of tears (of... what's the word I'm looking for here?) for very nearly the entirety of the song's closing minutes.

"All Alright," the closer track, is noteworthy for the inclusion of a third language into the vocal stylings of the band - English has now joined Icelandic, and Birgisson's Hopelandic. I don't quite know, still, how I feel about this departure. I very much liked getting a feeling from their music, and not a burning desire to understand precisely what they're getting at (the "meaning," if you will). At the same time, I very much like that they're taking something of a risk, that they're flexing their muscles a bit (though, if this is simply a concession to their international fanbase, I'd rather they not make another). What is art, or life, without some risk?

I think I'll end here by saying that this is the Sigur Ros album I've come to appreciate the best after a live performance; I think the songs, in a lot of ways, are best represented with a performance, and not a recording (and with a large group of people around you). Don't you think it's better to celebrate with a bunch of friends, and not alone?

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