Thursday, July 10, 2008

Sigur Rós / "Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust"

Sigur Rós are still the only band on my humble site to receive a 10.0 review. Their debut, I wrote, was "an album that is comprised of songs in name only. These aren't 'songs', they're epiphanies and moments of self-realization. A reminder of all that is glorious in this world." Given such lofty praise (and I was hardly alone in my adoration of "Ágætis Byrjun"), it was a nearly impossible act to follow. Their next two studio albums, "( )" and "Takk..." were in a similar vein to "Ágætis Byrjun" in that they were composed of beautiful, slowly unveiling miniature symphonies carried by the vocals of lead singer Jónsi Birgisson. While fine albums in their own right, it was an impossible task to make an album similar to "Ágætis Byrjun" that would be of superior quality and artistic merit. The band's latest album, "Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust", which translates to "With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly" in English, sees the band attempting new goals and strategies musically. Instead of attempting to impress the listener, as their previous albums sought to largely successfully, the band is instead simply making music which expresses the variety of emotions which it (and life) provokes.

From the beginning seconds of opening track "Gobbledigook", it is clear that this is a vastly different record than anything else in the Sigur Rós discography. The song stomps along merrily at a speed which is jarring relative to the band's past work. It doesn't build toward anything, content to simply exist as a brief, beautiful pop song. It will surprise those familiar with the band upon first listen, but becomes as vital of a work as nearly anything in their catalogue. The exuberance and joy of "Gobbledigook" carries into "Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur". Again, the song is much quicker and less expansive than the band's usual output, but is still an immediate and engrossing listen. "Góðan Daginn", on the other hand, sees the band playing more in the vein of "Takk...". Jónsi Birgisson floats his vocals effortlessly along the keys, guitar, and string of the band as the backing vocals seem to power him along. It's much more attuned to the senses than the beginning of the album, as so many of their finest songs are. While not neccessarily impressive compared to the finest moments of "Ágætis Byrjun", it fits beautifully in the context of the album.

"Við Spilum Endalaust" returns to the ecstasy of the earlier moments. At this point in the album, I'm surprised to find it to be a pop album, which is far from what the band sounded like when they first hit America in 2000 and 2001. That tide changes again with the 9-minute opus of "Festival", which is as much opera as pop. Birgisson may have sounded more otherwordly before, but never has he had a vocal performance like that displayed on the first half of this track. To call it simply beautiful is to do it injustice. In the second half, the percussion and guitars return and the song builds to a crescendo as vocals swirl faintly in the mix like distant seraphs. It's everything a Sigur Rós song is supposed to be, and for the first time on the album the band has crafted a lovely piece which sounds like listener expectations.

"Suð Í Eyrum" is another lovely moment, feeling simplistic despite containing a vast array of disparate elements. This is further evidence of the band's stunning ability to meld many individual sounds into a unified melody. It breezes along placidly, and like a brief but pleasant chill on a summer day, is gone. "Ára Bátur" marks the second time the band tops the 8-minute runtime. It continues as little more than Birgisson singing over minimal arrangements until about the 7-minute mark, when a choir and strings take over, lifting the song to new heights. It's exhilirating the first time, but the long length doesn't reward multiple listens. "Illgresi" is an acoustic piece which never takes off in the way many of the band's numbers do. It's hardly exhausting or boring at only four minutes, but is a bit of a disappointment overall. The slow pace and largely minimalist nature of the album's second half continue with "Fljótavík" and "Straumnes" which never amount to the glorious highs of the band's best work, although the final 45 seconds of the former makes a worthwhile attempt.

However, any disappointment in the second half is cured by the final track, "All Alright". When I heard pre-release that the song would be the band's first in English, I was a bit anxious. After all, part of the wonder of Sigur Rós is their songs (whether in Hopelandic or Icelandic) rely more on touching emotions than evoking them shallowly through words. However, "All Alright" is transcendent. The fragility and quiver of Birgisson's vocals gives the song a haunting aura, and it is a genuinely chilling and touching finale, regardless of language.

"Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust" might not be the 10.0 decade-defining classic of "Ágætis Byrjun", but it conveys the intelligence and self-awareness of the band. They've made history already. They're not out to speak the language of angels this time around; they're out to convey the happiness, sorrow, anguish, and hope of the human condition, as represented by the change in cover art from the fetal angel of "Ágætis Byrjun" to the naked, revealed people which grace the cover of this album. It's not perfect, but neither is humanity. Imperfections don't impede art from being breathtaking.

Rating: 8.7

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