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Discussions: Sigur Ros

By Ray Finlayson & Will Ryan; August 12, 2011 at 1:41 PM 

Sigur Ros

In the newest entry to our Discussions series, we chat about the amazing Sigur Rós.

WILL: So I’m just going to throw this out there from the get go: if forced at gun point to choose my forever-immortalized favourite record of all time, I’d probably have to go with Ágætis byrjun. For me, it’s like looking into the eyes of God/creation/infinity/etc. Especially “Svefn-g-englar.” With that out of the way, I still think there’s a lot to be said for ( ).

RAY: That’s a rather beautiful way of describing the music on Ágætis byrjun and if you’re set to be shot once the album is done I think it’d be a near perfect thing to listen to as you skirt along the edge of death. I hate to be clichéd and potentially run this conversation into the ground after one paragraph but it’s so very hard not to listen to the masterful and elegant work on Ágætis byrjun and not think that this is it, this is the pinnacle, this is the top of the mountain. I realise that that sounds somewhat degrading, like it’s all been downhill since 1999, but it’s not meant to come across like that. I’d say the band have kept themselves afloat on the clouds that blanket the top of my metaphorical mountain.

There’s plenty to be said for ( ) but I think there’s a lot to be said for any of their releases, from Von to the Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do EP. But ( ) always serves up some interesting opinions from the difference in each half of the album to what people actually call it – I’d be most interested to hear what you have to say about it.

WILL: I think when I first started listening to Sigur Rós, both Ágætis and ( ) had been released, so by the time I got to latter after listening to the former a million times there could only be disappointment waiting. But ( ) is a pretty staunch grower for me, as I’m sure it was for a lot of people. Slow and long-winded. But after letting it sink in, I think there are moments that join Ágætis at the top of the mountain, as you rightly put it. ( ) is raw and uncompromisingly blunt where Ágætis is lush and womb-like.

But to your question, I’m partial to the second side of ( ), which I think is the designated downer side. “Untitled 6” especially has something deeply stirring and tear-worthy about it. I have a friend who’s committed to using that track as the soundtrack to his funeral and I think it more than qualifies. How do you see the sides?

RAY: I think the most important thing when considering ( ), as we’ve both pointed out, is that it definitely is an album of two halves. But the strange thing is I’ve never nor could imagine just listening to one side at a time – I’d always take the two parts, one after the other. Listening again (it has been a while since I have) I felt like I was hearing two different sides of the same story. The first half of the album has sorrow through its veins but there’s a warmth to it all, like walking through wet grass after a storm the night before. “Untitled 3” is probably the sunniest moment here and I have a particular fondness for it for offering that six and half minute ray of light. I suppose then the second half of the album could be described as walking outside when the storm is in full flow and considering the intensity and unspecific fury of the likes of “Untitled 7” and more specifically “Untitled 8,” this simile seems entirely apt. But it all feels linked and even though there’s thirty-six seconds of silence between each set of four tracks, the clicking distortion at the beginning and end of the album brings it all together as one whole piece.

In a way I feel sorry for people who were waiting for this album after Ágætis as it would have been a quite a strange let down of sorts. Again I don’t want to sound degrading but I know after I’d been initially astounded and mystified by Ágætisthat ( ) felt somewhat lackluster. But like you said, letting it sink in really helps and it has numerous beautifully sad, cathartic, haunting and just plain beautiful moments of its own. Most people seem to slate them for the limited Hopelandic phrases used across the album but in a way, despite how well you might know them, they can sound entirely different and have different meanings depending on how you feel at the time. Do you think they should have put the language to rest after this album?

WILL: I mean, not to sound overly American, but Hopelandic and Icelandic sound pretty similar to my monolingual ears, so that novelty seemed a little forced when people would criticize (or praise, I guess). If Icelanders came forward en mass and said Hopelandic was bullshit, maybe there’d be a little more context to judge it. I don’t know. To be fair, I’ve never looked up any translations for Sigur Rós lyrics. When Jónsi sang a little in English last year on Go, it was pretty awesome to hear because his lyrics were stuff I might have imagined he was singing about regardless of language with Sigur Rós. I don’t know if his lyrical style changed or anything, the music did and didn’t to a certain extent, but he used broad kind of inhuman metaphors for very human, yet very broad stuff, which works for his voice and aesthetic.

I think you bring up an important point though with Hopelandic and the concept behind ( ), which goes beyond just the lyrical aspect. I think Hopelandic (as a pretext), the two differing sides of the record, the write your own story thing, the consistency of song writing and production all served to create a singular experience much like Ágætis byrjun. The records that came after ( ) I think were in need of an identity that went beyond Sigur Rós as just a band. Maybe their own clichés had caught up to them at that point, I’m not sure. It’s just a shame Takk and  Með seem to be their most listened to records as they feel very mercenary in comparison to the two previous — though I do like some songs off Takk.

RAY: Maybe I’m just pretentious but I will say that I do pick up the use of Hopelandic. I don’t mind it really on ( ) as it all fits in with the album’s concepts and ideas but when Jónsi started using in on subsequent releases the novelty and charm of it wore thin for me. Funnily enough though, when I was younger and really getting into the band, one of the things that bugged me was not knowing what the lyrics were and when I did stumble across some translations I was a little taken aback by the severity of some of it. It’s probably a bit more shocking now if you compare it to Jónsi’s solo work (try a line like “Barbwire stapled in my bleeding mouth/locked in a cage/naked animals beat me” from “Ný batterí” on for size).

But at the same time none of this really matters as even when Jónsi took an English turn on “All Alight” I still struggled to make out what he was saying. Instead, like with many of his other songs, I concentrated on the way he sung his lyrics and that has been a great appeal of his for a long time (from “Tyoowoohoo” on “Svefn-g-englar” to “lalalalala” on “Gobbledigook”). But still, I found it frustrating when those Hopelandic phrases turned up again on Takk as it sort of indicated an identity problem like you said. When you look at the simple picture it’s really quite evident why Takk and Með are their most commercially popular and most listened to albums as they offer condensed versions of the band in an appealing way. Sure the albums had their big long daunting tracks but they were next to ones like “Inní mér syngur vitleysingur” and “Hoppípolla” which are kind of instantly appealing. But with Ágætis byrjun it all lays on whether you found Jónsi’s falsetto coo appealing. That’s not to say the album didn’t have other hooks but even now, that one song (which may well be the beautiful death of the band some day), is still what it’s all about.

WILL: Okay, interesting, so the lyrics did change. Go was super positive, whereas a lot of early Sigur Rós, in tone not so much, so that makes sense. Although, those lyrics are probably a touch more dour than I might have guessed. Lacking the literal understanding of Jónsi ‘s words always created some complexity for me; the way I could project my own emotional interpretations onto the songs. It might be one of the reasons I love Sigur Rós so much. You’re definitely not pretentious. I think the Hopelandic thing just kind of shows my hand in terms of my listening habits. I’ve never really paid close enough attention to the lyrics to pick out phrases and recognize them later on, which is just my own thing.

You’re completely right about Takk and Með being condensed and immediately appealing. It makes sense for sure. As the crabby elitist music critic that I am or can be, it can just be frustrating. Or it used to be.

So, since there’s no real way around Ágætis byrjun’s pinnacle status, maybe we can pick it apart a bit. I’m interested in how the record might have changed over time. Like for me, initially that opener just couldn’t be matched, but after an extreme amount of repeated plays of the album, “Viðrar vel til loftárása” has come pretty damn close to hitting the same level of catharsis. It’s crazy – Jónsi inhaling at the beginning of the track is enough to be chill-inducing. And the way his voice climbs longingly over the strings before the lull and the wordless crescendo at the end is another glimpse into forever or what have you. It sounds like mountains collapsing. The album is such a masterpiece in vocal production (as in many other things).

RAY: There’s no correct way to listen to and hear music so you have every right to not really care about what Jónsi might be singing about. In a way finding translations of the lyrics does lose some of the magic (not that they are especially bad or anything) but not knowing what it’s all about does, as you said, leave for your own interpretation and also adds a layer of mystery which perhaps just lets you enjoy the vocal performance and the music all the more easily.

I agree that it’s really quite hard to put anything above Ágætis byrjun but I feel I should point out that I do really enjoy listening to the likes of Takk, Með,Von and all the other work in between. Með for example is terribly inconsistent and I find myself going back to listen to the songs that bookend the album and the longer ones stuck in the middle (which, despite all their over the top grandeur, I have a soft spot for). The other albums and EPs I’m happy to listen to put I think I have to be in a certain mood, especially for something as atmospheric and hollow (I don’t mean that as an insult) as Von.

But even Ágætis byrjun requires a certain mindset as it is a big undertaking once you start that can easily drain you. You’ve probably hit it on the head with “Viðrar” though as I’ve seen both myself and countless others coming to absolutely adore and worship this track. But strangely I really love the centre of the album, from “Flugufrelsarinn” to “Hjartað hamast” in particular. Maybe it’s just my fondness for their darker side but there’s something so encapsulating about the caged-in fear and anxiety these tracks seem to emit at times. With half the material on the album I’m pathetically reduced to using the term “ineffable.” “Olsen Olsen” is a bit of an exception though as there’s just something so lovely, warm and uplifting about it. I think it should serve as an example to the band on how to do grandeur without dragging out something that doesn’t feel inherently special (I’m looking in your direction “Ára bátur”). On “Olsen Olsen” they captured something divine and they could repeat that crescendo five times and I wouldn’t complain.

WILL: I remember feeling a little betrayed when Með came out (I’m a little too emotionally attached to this group), though I can’t really remember why. It’s really not that bad. A lot of it just felt like cheap pop for them, I guess. I honestly haven’t listened to it enough since ’08 to have a fully formed opinion.

For Ágætis byrjun, I think it straddles the line between challenging listen and immediacy. I can definitely relate in terms of needing a certain mindset. It is a totally draining experience, like you said, which I think adds to its majesty. It’s impossible to not give it your full attention, but once you do, it’s a bodiless listening experience. It’s very panoramic in a weird way. “Caged-in” is a good way to put it. Even with how brutal and exhausting ( ) can be, I never got the feeling of immersion that I get with Ágætis byrjun. It’s almost oppressive and abusive as a full length. I honestly don’t listen to Ágætis byrjun super often because I treat it as a sort of event. Throw on the vinyl and turn the lights out sort of thing. I don’t think it works as a passive listen, it is an undertaking, and even when I first started getting into it, it wasn’t ever an album that served to listen to like four times in one sitting. It’s no wonder Takk is their most listened to, I guess. It’s kind of the fast food version of all that.

I’m glad you brought up “Olsen Olsen.” I think it’s a really good case of the power of song order (which the whole album is really a study in). The way it blooms like a sunrise out of the ashes of “Viðrar” is breathtaking. It is perhaps the moment when the album shifts from night to day, so to speak, though it’s no less submerged. If I wasn’t paying attention to a track list, I’d almost think “Olsen Olsen” was going to be the closer. It would probably end the whole thing on a way too crazy high note though. The title track is sort of a come down and “Avalon” kind of sums everything up in a drone.

I definitely want to talk more about the middle, but have you ever felt like Ágætis byrjun goes on long? Not too long, but like a Tarkovsky movie or something (if you can excuse the reference)? Like it has equal amounts momentum and negative space, and you consciously realize, “holy shit this is really fucking long,” as it’s going but like it’s not a bad thing. It’s more to do with pace than actual duration. Like the third act is intentionally long or something. I’m always sort of surprised when  Ágætis keeps going after “Olsen Olsen,” but it still feels purposeful. Maybe I’m digging too much.

RAY: I can definitely relate about treating a full proper listen of Ágætis byrjun as something special. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if other writers doing these discussions did the same with their favourite albums by other artists. Despite the many years I’ve had with the album I don’t think I’ve quite found the ideal way to listen to it but much like I’ve said many times already, the way you hear this band’s music is always going to vary depending on how you feel, how you play it, where you play it or even what the weather’s like outside.

But Ágætis byrjun is a long album but it’s one of those albums that deserves to go on – purposeful, like you said. You do get those albums that go on for the perfect amount of time and I suppose you could accuse Ágætis of not having this quality. But, as you said, it’s an album built around movements, momentum and negative space. If you got rid of certain moments which any casual listener might deem pointless the flow and effect of the album would likely be lost. Even the longest track here, “Viðrar”, never feels like it’s dithering or going anywhere aimlessly whereas a track like “Milano” from Takk, which does have that sunny natural feel, just goes pretty much where you expect it to, which is nice, but can easily have you skipping the track or just wanting the band to hurry along and get to the next section of the album. If there’s one thing the band have managed to keep as a constant throughout their work it’s the way the band present their music in blocks, from the two halves of ( ) to Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do to Takk – it’s always there. And of course it’s present on Ágætis byrjun as you have already touched on.

WILL: I couldn’t agree more. Like the transitions from song to song are all very deliberate. There’s a kind of wandering quality to the first half of the record like stumbling upon and discovering new locations. “Svefn-g-englar” into “Starálfur” is especially weird with that sped up ping-pong heartbeat at the end that sort of mechanically fades into the strings. The physical-ness of that sound has always struck me in an odd way. That heartbeat along with the album cover and of course the emotions the music inspires has always given the album this womb-like feeling – specifically embryonic. The whole thing is extremely physical for how vast it is. But yeah, I love that space they provide. I love that they really just indulge in letting the sounds do what they need to do. It’s sort of anti-economy in terms of song writing and production (which Sigur Rós really is). Ágætis byrjun and ( ) have that extra layer, to me, where Takk is sort of just the sum of its parts. That could be down to those indulgences, which were sort of atmospheric and gave a ten minute song some context or made the run time sort of incidental whereas with something like “Milano” they couldn’t really justify it as much (though I do kind of like that song). Even if you listen to Hvarf/Heim, the songs off Ágætis don’t come anywhere close to having the same affect.

To the same point of context, I think all of the songs completely rely on each other. For example, “Starálfur” is a song that I think almost only works as a part of the whole. To my ears, it’s probably the most overtly “beautiful” and I think taken out of context, the prettiness and lightness lose some of the weight given by how it follows “Svefn-g-englar.” Then “Flugufrelsarinn” and “Ný batterí” follow it – perhaps the most desolate stuff on the whole thing, especially “Ný batterí”. The drums on that one have always stuck out to me as off, but in a way that’s intentional and endearing. The cymbals are really loud and oddly halting. How do you feel about “Hjartað hamast (bamm bamm bamm)”? I’ve always found it to be the oddity with its sort of funky organ and the harmonica out front. It goes to some of the most Ágætis byrjun-esque places, but it’s always been an interesting centrepiece to me.

RAY: I agree with what you’re saying about context. Much like I’ve said already the album’s definitely something to be taken and considered as a whole. Each song is beautiful in its own right but with the tracks seeping and melting into each other in the way they do, they all rely on each other for this context given by the extended transitions. And I suppose this is where “Hjartað hamast” stands alone as it doesn’t really bleed into the next track or originate from the previous one. In a way I suppose this is what makes it the album’s literal centrepiece and if anything this matches the feeling of desolation the track emits. I’m going to sound dreadfully cliché here but I suppose it’s like the heart itself (the track title translates to “The heart pounds (boom boom boom)”) in that it’s surrounded by other vital components and everything’s connected but still, it remains separated. But at the same I’d be reluctant to call the track the life of the album. While it’s hard to imagine the album without it I feel that the “life energy” (if you will) comes from everything working together. Much like a human body, without one component the rest is likely to decay and fail. Each track is mutually dependent on each other, similar to the way we as listeners have become dependent on that escape, that energy, that specific ineffable something we get from this very, very special album.

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