When the announcement was made a few weeks ago about the release of Sigur Rós‘ fifth studio album, you could be forgiven that somebody, somewhere was trying to pull an elaborate practical joke.
The album’s Icelandic title Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, for example, was translated as “with a buzz in our ear, we play endlessly” – now come on, any wannabe Chris Morris would call their Sigur Rós parody something similar, right? The first track was called, of all things, Gobbledigook. Yet what gave the game away completely was the announcement that one track was sung in English. Sigur Rós, singing in English? Now, that’ll never happen…
Yet as it turns out, it wasn’t a belated April Fool, and we do indeed have the first recorded instance of Jónsi Birgisson warbling away in English on the album’s closing track After All. And that’s not the only departure. For, although this is still very recognisably Sigur Rós, there are several radical moments of departure.
The aforementioned Gobbledigook, for example, absolutely rocks. Clattering drums lend the song an almost tribal rhythm, making this the first Sigur Rós song that it’s possible to dance to. The momentum continues with the exhilarating Inní mér syngur vitleysingur, which combines piano, guitar and those pounding drums again to stunning effect.
It wouldn’t be a Sigur Rós album though without the odd, epic, ethereal moment, and they don’t disappoint here. Festival may seem, at first listen, to meander around pleasantly if pointlessly, but listened to on headphones, in the dark on full volume, it’s astonishing. The first four minutes are simply Jónsi singing over some ambient keyboards, before the drums and string section kicks in and it builds up quite beautifully over the next six minutes or so. It all comes to a crashing climax, amid which you can just about hear some whistling. It’s nothing short of glorious.
Ára Bátur is another lengthy track, a nine minute long ballad, consisting for long periods of just Jónsi, making noises like no man on earth, and a stately piano, while very, very gradually, an orchestra builds up. In the last minute, the orchestra bursts into life, and the effect is just beautiful. The following Illgresi represents a departure, featuring as it does finger-picking acoustic guitars and the ever so slight resemblance (to these ears at least) to Bryan Adams‘ Heaven…
So there may be (relatively) shorter songs and more hummable melodies, but there’s not a hint of sell-out. Each track is one to float away with, to close your eyes and be transported to a different place. The emotions that Sigur Rós stirs up within the listener cannot hope to be matched by any other band. Even a seemingly inconsequential instrumental such as Straumnes is incredibly lovely.
As for that much vaunted English track, All Alright sounds…well, very like Sigur Rós really. “I want him to know what I have done” runs the lyrics, but Jónsi sings them so desolately you’ll be hard pushed to make a word out: as ever, it’s the atmosphere that counts for everything.
As ever with Sigur Rós, if you’re a fan you will lap this up – the unconvinced will, despite the more commercial touches, probably remain unconvinced. Overall though, this is another wondrous album from a band at the height of their considerable powers.