Sigur Rós’s ( ) Turns 10
I grew up in Westerville, Ohio, a Columbus suburb with such a profound historical aversion to alcohol that the Anti-Saloon League decided to set up its headquarters there during prohibition. That legacy stuck; decades after the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th, Westerville remained dry. Thus, the closest thing to nightlife was a monthly event called Midnight Madness in which businesses in the quaint Uptown district stayed open late. I was homesick during my first quarter down the road at Ohio University, and some friends were back in town from their respective colleges, so we found ourselves Uptown perusing the shops one Friday night. The only storefront of interest to 19-year-old me was Sour Records, a brick-and-mortar shop run by a tall, large-nosed man named Steve. Judging from the number of empty wine bottles on the counter that night, Steve and his buddies had been flouting our city’s heritage of sobriety. I was hoping he would have the new Sigur Rós album in stock even though it wasn’t coming out until the following week, and sure enough, there it was on the shelf behind the register, its jewel case wrapped in a white plastic cover with two parentheses carved out. File-sharing was a widespread phenomenon by then, but leaks weren’t the pervasive force they are now. Getting ahold of an album before the release date was something special, especially one as anticipated as this. So I got up the courage to ask Steve about it, and — after subjecting me to a wine-addled lecture that involved pulling out every Bob Dylan CD from his racks, describing them all at length and forcing me to purchase one — he let me buy the Sigur Rós too.
I was ecstatic. Upon the release of ( ) in 2002, Sigur Rós was a bigger deal than ever before or since. Their next three albums all charted higher, but none felt more like an event. The previous three years had seen the group develop, on the strength of masterstroke sophomore release Ágætis byrjun, from an anonymous foreign band into a beloved treasure among the rapidly expanding initiated. They emerged fully formed, combining post-rock’s grandiosity, Bjork’s mysterious Icelandic quirkiness and a lead singer whose celestial whale call bore more than a passing resemblance to Thom Yorke. Jonsi Birgisson’s falsetto struck such an alluring balance between achingly human and startlingly alien that it didn’t matter whether I could understand a single word from his mouth. (In fact, after perusing the translated lyrics from Ágætis byrjun, not knowing was definitely better.) He was probably airing out some particular internal turmoil, but Sigur Rós was not about communicating coherent thoughts so much as conjuring extravagant swells of universal emotion. In doing so, they also conjured quite an audience, all of whom were awaiting Oct. 28 with fevered anticipation.
What did Sigur Rós do with this opportunity? They delivered their bleakest, most grueling collection, a cold and dreary 72-minute sprawl that’s both deeply confounding and deeply moving. “The Bracket Album,” as the band members call it, is the best ammunition for anyone looking to accuse Sigur Rós of being moody and pretentious. There’s the symmetrical conceit: eight untitled tracks divided into two vaguely opposite swaths of emotion, separated by 36 seconds of silence, summed up with a Google-proof pair of parentheses. (The record even begins and ends with the plugging and unplugging of an amplifier cord.) Then there’s Hopelandic, the made-up language Birgisson used for all the lyrics, seemingly embracing the fact that for much of his audience he might as well be singing gibberish anyway. He mostly seemed to be saying “You sigh low” a lot. (“You silo?”) And lest anyone crack a smile while listening, there would be none of the elven festivities of the prior album’s “Olsen Olsen,” nor the prancing-naked-across-the-highway joyful noise the band later perfected on 2008’s Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (translation: “With A Buzz In Our Ears We Play Endlessly.”) This was a bleak wilderness. Traversing it was an exercise in patience and endurance, even by Sigur Rós standards. Its pleasures couldn’t have been further from the so-called new rock revolution being spearheaded by the Strokes and the White Stripes at the time.
But there were plenty of pleasures. “Untitled #1″ laid a dramatic foundation, beginning the album’s supposedly light and optimistic first half with the sound of fleeting ecstasy, glimmers of light being swallowed by the gray. In turn, “untitled #8″ gathered tension slowly and methodically until at long last the levee broke and the band proved they could absolutely throttle you when they felt like it. Somewhere between was arguably the band’s artistic peak, “untitled #4,” a song so heartrendingly majestic that Cameron Crowe sprung for a live recording of it to score the final scene of Vanilla Sky because the studio version wasn’t available yet. The rest of the record — mostly elongated textural soundscapes that surged forward with all the urgency of glaciers — wasn’t nearly as compelling on first listen, and some of it still feels like a drag. Acquiring it four days early wasn’t much of a head start in the race to comprehend it; nor did live performance fully unlock it. Seeing Sigur Rós in concert during that period from a comfortably padded theater chair, I alternated between battling to stay awake and experiencing such a rush that I must surely have been dreaming. Like most music designed to get lost in, its mystique seemed to come and go with your trances.
It’s remarkable that Sigur Rós didn’t seem to shed any fans with this album. ( ) is not exactly Metal Machine Music, but it takes a committed listener to follow through to the finish, especially once you hit the desolate second half. (It ends with a 13-minute song followed by an 11-minute song, and those are the catchy ones.) Most people don’t relish the chance to have their patience tested; few want to carve out the time to fully immerse themselves in an experience even if the benefits are readily apparent. Revisiting the record Sunday on its 10th birthday, it wasn’t any less obfuscating, but its mesmerizing power remained as well. The elation that comes with the highs demands closer examination of the lows, even if you have to squint sometimes to find the magic. ( ) is not the album the faithful were hoping for, nor is it a higher wisdom left turn along the lines of Kid A. It is a brooding and finicky diva, as stubborn as it is unimaginably gorgeous.