Who’d have thought it? Sigur Rós, champions of the avant-garde, leading lights from the land of the aurora borealis and leftfield ebow pioneers, have gone pop. The Icelandic quartet’s fourth album, their first for a major and released three years after their third, (), has singalong tunes, lyrics in a known language… it even has track names. Is this what EMI’s big money does to artistic credibility?
But not so fast with the incredulity. Calling Takk “pop” is a relative term – it doesn’t for a nanosecond suggest Sigur Rós are about to employ synchronised dancers. Rather, Takk will make reassuringly familiar sounds to fans who’ve loved Agaetis Byrjun, for it is the sound of the band leaving aside darker, scarier worlds to return to more innocent places. With Takk (Icelandic for “thanks”), Sigur Rós sound happy, but they’re no less dramatic.
Prior to 2002′s doomladen but in places stunning (), this band made beautiful songs suggestive of childhood games, awe at surroundings and emotional connection. Even if the lyrics were sung in a nonsense, made-up language, it was a hard heart indeed that would not be moved by their astonishing music. It is to this other dimension, a realm of escape, that Jónsi, Kjartan, Orri and Georg head with this record.
Takk’s songs are still epics of over seven minutes that generally take at least half of that to get going, and they evoke euphoria, delight and wonder. Cliches about storms and glaciers can be left politely at the door of the immediately memorable Glósóli, with its insistent conclusion anchored by a trio of bass drums crunching a speaker-busting thud that’s rousing enough to march an army into battle. It’s like a light, happy counterpoint to the ironically named Popplagid (“The Pop Song”) from ().
But whereas on () there were unfocused experimental doodlings between the standouts, here Glósóli segues seamlessly into another highlight – second single, Hoppípolla.
Conveying a near-ecstatic celebration of contentment, Orri’s drums again root the sound as piano and Jónsi’s vocals build the song into the closest Sigur Rós has come to producing a singalong track. Then classical maestro Kjartan unleashes sweeping strings and brass to send the whole thing – surely? – into the singles chart with one of those immense conclusions that Sigur Rós have consistently done so well.
Recognisable song structures on these tracks and Sé Lest, Sæglópur – the best for fans of Jónsi’s ebow and another rousingly dramatic moment – and Gong make Takk Sigur Rós’s most accessible album to date, and the glorious string arrangements are by far the most realised the band have so far accomplished. But they’ve been careful not to throw out the inventive spark that makes them so special.
In amongst all the parping bombast, soaring falsetto vocals and dramatic orchestration, they still find space for quieter, reflective moments of real beauty. It’s possible to imagine the xylophone and piano led Með Blóðnasir being played to a restless baby as it heads off to slumber. The equally lovely Mílanó – another gracefully slow builder – could soundtrack waking up alongside a loved one to a crisp, cloudless sky, a coastal view and idyllic solitude, and just revelling in the sheer joy at being alive to witness the moment.
Better still, Takk does what Agaetis Byrjun did by burrowing into the consciousness and snuggling down to bed there, purring. Each listen brings out another mood, another thought. It’s gorgeous.
Where it all goes from here even the band claim not to know. But following a record like Takk, Sigur Rós could bow out at the top of their game and pass into the annals of music legend. The delight for fans is in the expectation that there are yet further hidden wonders to be revealed by this most gifted and unconventional of bands. Takk, guys.