I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.
Let’s get this right out of the way: the first characteristic that you’ll latch onto when listening to Ágætis Byrjun is That Voice. Jon Thor (Jonsi) Birgisson sounds otherworldly, his extraterrestrial tenor soaring to a eunuch-like falsetto, and yet it’s so soothing that it could lull you to sleep with its gentleness. In fact, if Jonsi wants, I’m sure he’s got a children’s record in him. But combined with the strings and keyboards and guitars, everything gauzy and ethereal, moving at a snail’s pace, That Voice becomes a sublime instrument that not only anchors the traditional sounds but also elevates them beyond the typical post rock arrangement. And I haven’t even used the adjective “angelic” yet – so here I go. Heard in conjunction with the visual of the album art (an illustration of a child in utero, but with the addition of cherubic wings), you’d be forgiven if you weren’t convinced that the singer was positively angelic. Jonsi’s voice is so soothing, embracing you in its unusual familiarty, that the sounds coming from his mouth – despite the fact that the language in which he sings is a mix of Icelandic and a made-up language that he’s dubbed “Hopelandic” – can absolutely be mistaken for English, the long, drawn-out vowel sounds often sounding like “you”s, etc. And that’s part of the appeal: the universality of the singing, even though the language is fairly obscure to most of the world. It’s a beautiful, all-encompassing voice, and no discussion of Sigur Rós can begin without first addressing it.
And it combines just so flawlessly with the rest of the music. After the brief “Intro,” “Svefn-G-Englar” (translation: “Sleepwalkers”) drones to life, featuring periodic deep-sea keyboard pings and subterranean string and piano arrangements. But it really gets going with Jonsi’s heavily delayed and bowed guitar, a characteristic of the band as unique as the vocals, even if it’s not quite as prominent an instrument as his voice. The effect is almost like a distorted cello, the haunting reverberation placing the listener squarely at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, or at least seemingly so, perhaps, as the perception of the titular sleepwalker can be as disorienting as wandering in deep water. The effect is transportative, though, as the song creates a cocoon around the listener and removes him or her so completely from the current surroundings and into the insular and safe world that Sigur Rós is creating. Sleep as escape from normal life, as they seem to infer with the title, is the method by which we will be enlightened. “Svefn-G-Englar” is also the song where unfamiliar words take on the most familiar shapes, so much so that you’d be hard pressed not to think that you could sing along to it.
“Starálfur” (“Staring Elf”) follows, and is perhaps my favorite song on the album, mainly by virtue of its inclusion in Wes Anderson’s film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. (If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it, and offer a spoiler alert here – avert your eyes if you don’t want to know major plot points.) I’ve always been a firm believer that Anderson is a master at incorporating music into his films for maximum emotional impact, and he does so at the very end of The Life Aquatic: Steve Zissou, played by Bill Murray, is an oceanographer and documentary filmmaker, a la Jacques Cousteau, and a broken man in search of redemption. He departs with his crew on an expedition to find the shark that ate his best friend Esteban, documenting it in the process. His regular crew increases by two with the inclusion of his long-lost son and a pregnant reporter after whom he lusts. By the end of the film, his son is dead, he’s been rejected by the reporter, and he’s lost a crewman to pirates (although they eventually save him), as well as three-quarters of his coterie of interns, and his wife and main financial backer don’t believe in him as they used to. But they discover the location of the shark, which Steve had shot with a homing beacon before it made its getaway after ingesting Esteban. The remaining crew and followers gather in a tiny submarine, and, in the depths of the sea, they glimpse the beautiful luminescent shark. Steve, overcome by emotion, decides at that moment that he does not want revenge on the shark, and instead of destroying it goes home and decides he’d rather connect to the people that are still in his life, a huge change for him. This poignant underwater scene is lovingly soundtracked by the piano/string/vocal arrangement of “Starálfur.”
I find myself losing track of “Flugufrelsarinn” (“The Fly’s Savior”) and “Ny Batteri” (“New Batteries”) instead of being drawn into them as I am the other tracks. The former is the closest the band gets to adult-contempo soft rock on this album, and it can be a bit trying following the opening salvo of excellence. As for “Ny Batteri,” it’s almost nine minutes long, but doesn’t really get going until about the five-minute mark.
“Hjartað Hamast (Bamm Bamm Bamm)” (“The Heart Pounds [Boom Boom Boom]”) is the point at which Sigur Rós discovers (or perhaps creates a facsimile of) an actual “groove,” and we’re treated to an electric piano and a blues riff, on top of which is layered harmonica and pounding drums. It’s a nice departure, a reminder that the band can move beyond ethereality and offer something more meaty to chew. “Viðar Vel Tl Loftárasa” (“Good Weather for an Airstrike”) is the hidden treasure buried in the middle of the album. It features plaintive slide guitar reminiscent of the beautiful theme to Brokeback Mountain. Perhaps the theme’s composer, Gustavo Santaolalla, was inspired by it for the 2004 film. “Olsen Olsen” is another overshadowed gem, as it features a looping, carnivalesque melody that begins on piano in the first half of the song, but by the end is being played by an orchestra. The song ends abruptly and unusually with an effect that sounds a lot like a cassette tape melting over hot reels (or maybe it’s my tape melting over hot reels … let me check.) (Nope, I’m listeneing to it on an iPod.) Before the instrumental closer “Avalon,” the true lullaby of the title track (“A Good Beginning”) nestles us back into our beds underneath our warm covers.
This is a really good album – however, I find myself more drawn to the album following this in Sigur Rós’s discography, the kind-of-eponymous-but-not-really ( ). But Ágætis Byrjun is what it literally means: a good beginning (if you discount the band’s actual first album, Von, which is a difficult listen particularly if you’re coming to it after immersing yourself in the later albums). It’s the album that put the band on the international map and carved out their place among ethereal post rock bands. In fact, this album is so beloved by the music press at large that it was regarded by Pitchfork as the number 8 album in their top 200 albums of the 2000s, and Rolling Stone magazine ranked it 29th in their top albums of the 2000s, both prestigious placements. It’s kind of hard to just pick it out of a stack of a CDs to randomly listen to though – it takes a specific mindset and commitment to delve into it, but if you find yourself in that proper frame of mind, you can’t find a more perfect album.
RIYL: angelic vocals mixed with your post rock