Shades of Gray


Sigur Rós are a quiet Icelandic quartet who with their new, untitled, major-label third album [already referred to by semi-pop folklorists as ( )] are currently making a bold U.S. move. Apart from some legally mandated boilerplate printed in tiny gray, curving around the edge of the white-on-white disc, the CD package—whose blurred although representational image presentation offers depictions of weeds on the front and leafless trees on the back—bears only the following hand-scripted words, surely one of the more poignant-looking Web addresses ever: The handscript is assertive yet unflashy, distinctive yet shy—stylish, you realize, but only after visually absorbing its balance and logic: the expansive, rounded capital S and R that begin the two respective words (Icelandic for “victory” and “rose”); the more compressed lowercase letters, with the g whose straight tail slants gently to the left; the amount of unthreatened room inside the closed-in areas of all the streamed-together characters, rendered in relatively cushy medium-point. It’s a completely accessible Web address that suggests, in fact, a rose lying on its stem, everything rendered in shades of gray. The same is true of the music.

The songs, which guitarist Jon Thor Birgisson occasionally sings in Icelandic, are narrative in highly unusual ways. With bassist Georg Holm, keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson, and drummer Orri Pall Dryason joining him, Sigur Rós are categorically a rock band, and when a melody seizes them, they do not hesitate to let it dominate the proceedings, as Birgisson’s countertenor takes sweet-toned control. But other times the music consists of elongated guitar passages that stretch out unhurriedly, or rhythms that do the same, or keyboard or symphonic parts that tip the mix over into sonic demonstrations of whatever these elements want to argue or confess or discuss or comment on or stress over. Just as nothing about Sigur Rós makes you think that they were being indulgent or capricious in releasing a virtually untitled album with nameless songs, their weird narrative tack is equally credible: While the songs don’t tell stories in modes or with details that you can necessarily parrot back, they still attack and achieve the material business of reporting. Sometimes, in this music, you get the feeling that even Sigur Rós don’t grasp all the particulars of what they are relating; they seem to be struggling, unearthing scenes the specifics of which they’re sadly unsure.

The effect eclipses mere mood: Sigur Rós’s music is about extraordinarily particular moments in time, when one feeling or reaction or situation seems set to switch or zoom off into another. It’s like when you’re driving on the freeway at dusk during a rainstorm, caught in your car with both surrounding lanes hogged by tractor-trailers, and you sense how different the world will be after you’ve clobbered the accelerator and sped by. It’s about that moment when you show up late (again) for dinner, with another exceedingly poor reason, and you mumble a lame excuse and she says, “Darling, that’s what you said last week,” and you know she’s never going to believe you, exactly, ever again. Sigur Rós’s music is not about the backstory or the future; it’s about that precise moment when the trucks are obstructing your hazy lateral space on the freeway, or when she responds to you at dinner, with that horrible new vein of indifference suddenly alive in her voice.

Where 1999’s Ágætis Byrjum incorporated more traditional symphonic textures, the new untitled Sigur Rós album changes not so much the structural manner of the band’s music, but the sound; it’s more emphatically based in freed bass-guitar-drums, less pristine, more sonically distressed, more le mystère des voix Bulgares in its super-refined and accomplished roughage. At times, because the form of the songs often recalls the slow-moving yet enormously eventful unwindings of sacred works from the European classical music canon, the nameless Sigur Rós songs can come across like exquisitely junk re-castings of the Verdi Requiem, scored for a congregation in beat-up jeans. But if there’s a 19th-century emotional generosity, there’s also a 17th-century leanness and unflagging focus, so sometimes the listener might similarly hear Radiohead A&R-ed by Monteverdi. And anyone familiar with the great recordings of the English new-wave-into-Miles Davis ’80s band Talk Talk, as well as leader Mark Hollis’s 1998 self-titled solo album, will hear that influence as well.

But with Sigur Rós it’s less about the sources than the sound, the microsecond it happens, addressed to The Universe. The songs on the new album are sequenced to build to dramatic conclusions. Typical of the album as a whole, the penultimate piece starts as a sacred dirge, as Birgisson buries into his lower register, sustaining a boomeranging vocal mock-stasis; his singing is like old heavy furniture that, in the next moments, might somehow combust. Then as his phrases lengthen, becoming more strangulated, less pretty yet also more ecstatic, the music itself begins to blaze, picking up in tempo and dynamics as it bleeds into the next piece.

Here, at the end of the album, is where Sigur Rós demonstrate why they aren’t doing flawlessly recorded new age or expensively engineered world or big-time studio art—anything but this awesome grassroots chamber-rock—music. In their way, they rock out. A three-note figure that’s first taken up by the guitar and later echoed by Birgisson’s countertenor sounds and sounds and sounds again while the percussion gradually scales down and moves forward from a modern Africanist polyrhythmic slant into a more tribal pounding. And everything keeps threading back and forth into everything else. You could write it down, notate exactly what the music in this arrangement is up to. Or you could do what Sigur Rós clearly and so passionately and soulfully want you to do: Ignore what happens next.