The first single for Sigur Rós’ Valtari, “Ekki Múkk,” arrived with the fanfare and warm reception expected of that dramatic moment — after all, it was the first new recording under the Sigur Rós banner since 2008’s Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust. “Ekki Múkk,” though, isn’t much like the Icelandic group’s best known songs — the types of songs that score Wes Anderson movies — rather, it’s a spare, glistening track, majestically arranged yet spacious, never rushing to any kind of conclusion, thrilling or otherwise. It closes quietly. If you weren’t paying attention, you might forget that “Ekki Múkk,” in all its downstated detail, was even there.
So, much like the record in question yesterday, Valtari is a laid-back affair perhaps at odds with the media-fed importance and fan expectation of that event, a return of a beloved artist in an unexpected, maybe even jarring, form. It opens with the warm sunrise of “Ég Anda,” a track awash in twinkling atmosphere and lush string interplay, in which Jónsi never strains to force a melody or a hook. At the point in which “Ég Anda” fades into “Ekki Múkk,” it’s perceivable that Valtari is best understood as a suite of songs, a record that’s not shifting in and out of instrumental arrangements or changeups in tone, but weaving in and out of movements that only once or twice (the breakdown of “Var,” for instance) swell to a level of ballast comparable to their most famous climaxes. But even then, it’s more of a static-y, plotted-out approach. The twittering music box chimes of “Rembihnútur” recall their collaborative Merce Cunningham score “Split Sides” before the song opens up into a “Glósóli”-like march. The meditative “Dauðalogn” recalls the orchestral rush of “Starálfur” and also the stark rawness of Jónsi Birgisson’s “Heysátan” vocal. Valtari, as a body, is densely-scored and light on any kind of thundering percussion, pleasantly formless in spots, smartly subtle. Valtari works in wisps of their best and best-known work, musical liner notes that may fire up forgotten memories tied to their music.
Valtari shirks the accessible directions that something like Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust and Jónsi’s solo album Go (as well as his We Bought A Zoo soundtrack contributions) might have protracted, instead diving deeper into textures unexplored since the early days of the band. If I have to conjure up some kind of appropriate imagery to describe the vibe of Valtari — and Ohmygod I hate doing this, but since the record’s intentional lack of immediacy is daunting to evaluate I think I’m going to have to force myself to force myself — Valtari is like chasing possibly-imagined wood sprites through a forest in a barely remembered dream compared to the ship-bow-bending whale sex of something like ()‘s “Popplagið.” And, no disrespect to whale sex, but Valtari is bolder for it.