The return of Sigur Ros
I have no idea what the lyrics in the music of Iceland’s Sigur Ros mean. They sing in Icelandic and I don’t think this column will be read by too many people who are familiar with that language, which, incidentally, is one of the few Nordic languages that have undergone the least degree of change from its root, Old Norse, the ancient language spoken by the Vikings. But the meaning of the lyrics is not what you should be looking for when you spin something by Sigur Ros. I was pointed to the band some years back by a friend with more adventurous taste in music than mine who’d slipped me a burnt disc with their second album, Ágætis Byrjun (which apparently means ‘good beginning’) with these simple instructions: “Go home. Switch off the lights. Play this. Sit back and shut your eyes.”
I did exactly that without knowing what to expect and wasn’t prepared for what followed. Sigur Ros make music that sounds other-wordly and dreamy. They use bows to play their guitars and enlist glockenspiels, toy pianos, flutes and synthesizers besides the standard fare of rock bands–drums and bass guitars and keyboards and so on. The band is driven by frontman Jón Þór “Jónsi” Birgisson whose falsetto vocals are always a compelling listen although he’s usually singing in Icelandic. In fact, sometimes he doesn’t even sing in Icelandic but in gibberish—lyrics that mean nothing, in a language that doesn’t even exist. Some people call it Hopelandic because Hope was the name of a track on which Jonsi first experimented with, well, Hopelandic.
A few critics call Sigur Ros’s music post-rock and I’m not very sure what that means. For me, they make music that is really very calming, like classical western music sometimes is. If you listen to their 2005 album, Takk, which uses cellos, violins, violas, trombones and tubas in addition to guitars, drums and keyboards, you’ll see how amazingly minimalist yet satisfyingly engulfing their music can be.
After a spell of overdosing on Sigur Ros—I went about listening to Ágætis Byrjun and Takk and also their most recent album, which goes by the title of Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (which, if you’re interested, means With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly) and even wrote in this column about them two years ago—I stopped. And then, I vaguely heard that the band was on hiatus after giving up on making a new album. I did check out lead singer and frontman Jonsi’s solo album, Go (released in 2010), which is mainly acoustic and some of the songs are sung in English.
Then, a few months back, sitting down with my daughter to watch Dreamworks’ computer animation film, How To Train Your Dragon, I thought I heard something familiar. And indeed, it was Jonsi’s voice on one of the songs in the film’s soundtrack. Jonsi has composed and performed a song, Sticks and Stones, for that film and a part of the lyrics are in English. It doesn’t sound like a typical Sigur Ros song. Partly that is because of the lyrics—you can understand them—but also because it has less of an other-worldly sound. I was a bit disappointed. Has Jonsi bitten the dust and turned mainstream? Is that dreamy, other-worldly nature of his compositions going to be a thing of the past?
I needn’t have worried. Last week, a track dropped via the internet that laid to rest all such worries. It was a new track from Sigur Ros, who, as I said, I had thought were on a break. They’re back. The song’s called Ekki Mukk and it’s a sneak preview of a new Sigur Ros album, Valtari, that is scheduled to be released towards the end of May. Ekki Mukk is a 7-minute plus song and is more electric than anything from the band that I have heard before. But it is dreamy, ethereal and other-worldly. If that is what their new album will sound like, I’m waiting for end-May to again follow the advice that I received some years back: I shall go home. Switch off the lights. Play it. Sit back and shut my eyes.