Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Sigur Rós ÁTTA


Did you take it for granted? I took it for granted. In May 2012, Sigur Rós released Valtari, a magnificently pretty album described by bassist Georg Holm as a slow-motion avalanche. In June 2013, they returned with Kveikur, a darker, sleeker, more electronic-leaning iteration of the band’s singular post-rock sound. This was two albums just 13 months apart from one of the greatest bands in the world — real, canonical LPs, not the kinds of side projects and short-form works that have filled up the intervening decade. They were good, too. Returning to them now, both records hold up as, if not life-upending Ágætis byrjun-tier masterpieces, the sort of otherworldly post-rock spectacle Sigur Rós made their name on. We were spoiled. And then, suddenly, we were starved.

It’s not like Sigur Rós have been doing nothing for a decade. Since 2013, fans have been greeted with a steady trickle of new music: formal experiments, dance soundtracks, live records, a Jónsi solo album, the occasional single or EP. When they debuted new music at Primavera Sound way back in 2016, it contributed to one of the greatest festival performances I’ve ever witnessed. They seemed to be on to something at that point, but whatever was building petered off, and so much of what they’ve released since then has felt like in-between material, things you do to bide your time until you start doing the real thing again. Maybe they were waiting on the return of multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson, who’s back in the lineup again after departing in 2012. Maybe they had to start over after drummer Orri Páll Dýrason left the band amid sexual assault allegations. Maybe they were just drowning in paperwork.

Regardless of how they got here or why it took so long, ÁTTA, out Friday, marks a resumption of Sigur Rós as a vital creative unit rather than a wheel-spinning legacy act. Their first proper album in 10 years was very consciously created to summon the splendor of this band at their best. In press materials, the various members talk about aiming to capture a sense of hope in the face of pervasive malaise, of turning their focus from the outside world to the resilience within. Per Jónsi, “We’re getting older and more cynical so I just wanted to move us so that we felt something!” It’s a theoretically corny proposition, but the entire point of Sigur Rós has always been to make the deepest universal emotions well up inside listeners, to transcend the mundanity of daily life with grand, fantastical gestures. If anyone can get away with framing their album as a retreat from doomscrolling, it’s these guys.

They aimed to create “really sparse, floaty and beautiful” music. They succeeded on all three counts. ÁTTA finds the Icelandic greats pushing past post-rock into a more fluid form of neoclassical composition, largely leaving behind drums and most other vestiges of rock music in favor of one spectral orchestral movement after another. In this band’s early 2000s prime, directors like Cameron Crowe and Wes Anderson made classics from Ágætis byrjun and ( ) essential components of actual movie soundtracks, yet Sigur Rós — a band who has probably been described as “cinematic” more often than any other — have never made an album that sounds more like a film score.

It’s possible that approach is a function of not having a drummer in the band anymore rather than some innate compulsion, but they mostly made it work. Any excerpt from ÁTTA might catch you in a moment of weakness and devastate you on impact. Opening track “Glóð” plays out like an overture calling back to the band’s glory days; built around an Ágætis-reminiscent string section and bathed in celestial light, it feels like being visited by an angel. “Ylur” similarly invokes the verbal and melodic phrasing of ( ) as well as the desolation. The graceful “Skel” grows prettier and more intense as it goes, Jónsi’s falsetto ascending as if he’s actually scaling the symphonic music to its peak. Closing track “8” finds common ground between Sigur Rós and something like José González’s crystalline indie-folk before once again sending the stars aswirl. When the gorgeous bluster finally recedes, even the simple chord changes that remain glow with a luster few artists can match. (Coldplay could never.)

But highlighting individual songs is beside the point. You’re supposed to hear ÁTTA as one unified work, and they’re serious enough about that dictum that my promo copy was one big 56-minute file. Given the aesthetic consistency throughout, that makes sense to a point, but it also underlines the album’s greatest weakness: Without the dynamic impact of a more robust percussion section, the songs often blur together, and momentum sometimes stalls out. We’re a long way from the hard-hitting jubilance of 2008’s Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, a style that invigorated Sigur Rós even as it undermined their supernatural allure. The new approach recovers that sense of holy pageantry, but the lack of contrast between these songs becomes clear in those rare moments when something like a drumbeat does kick in. The pounding pulse that emerges on “Klettur” makes all the difference; even a change of pace like paring down to just an acoustic guitar for a moment on “Andrá” goes a long way toward differentiating the track from all the glittering sameness surrounding it.

Still, that glittering sameness sure is pretty. ÁTTA is an easy record to appreciate but a hard one to really wrap your head around — breathtaking in ways that make the conventional feel alien, yet also disembodied, almost holographic, and therefore slippery. Given Jónsi’s longstanding use of both his native tongue and the nonsense language Hopelandic, most listeners are already experiencing Sigur Rós as a strictly musical proposition in which the human voice is just one more (unbelievably powerful) instrument within the sprawl. Scaling back the rhythmic element so significantly takes away another dimension from the music, and that lack of bombast tempers my enthusiasm for an otherwise incredible hour of music. But after all this time, I certainly am not about to take such a majestic succession of sounds for granted.

ÁTTA is out 6/16 digitally via BMG, with physical release to follow on 9/1.

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