Sigur Ros - Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust
Last fall, I wrote a post about Sigur Ros's double-EP release, "Hvarf/Heim", and praised both EPs. Since then, "Heim" has stuck with me more than "Hvarf" has, its symphonic textures and occasional quiet gasps of acoustic guitar coming back to me in quiet moments and demanding to be played over and over again. Apparently it stuck with Sigur Ros themselves just as tenaciously, as, according to their website, their newest album is heavily influenced by those acoustic sessions. "Inspired by the unfettered feeling of the acoustic performances filmed during 'heima'," the website states, "Sigur Rós decided to adopt a looser approach in the writing and creation of 'Med Sud'." This much became obvious the second opening track and first single "Gobbledigook" was made available (get a free 320 kbps mp3 download from their website here). When I first downloaded it, I wasn't sure whether to expect much. Despite the fact that "Hvarf/Heim" had blown me away less than a year before, the part of me that's always waiting for Sigur Ros to start sucking was voicing its skepticism quite loudly as I waited for the track to download. As I started to play it for the first time, I forced myself not to expect much, to prepare for a letdown.
Imagine my surprise when it became immediately obvious that "Gobbledigook" was one of the best Sigur Ros songs ever released. Beginning with acoustic guitar strums jumping from speaker to speaker, it quickly got going in earnest, driven by a tribal drumbeat that might only be slightly uptempo for most bands but, coming from Sigur Ros, seemed almost frantic. The tribal drumbeat, seemingly in 3/4 time, danced around the individually struck acoustic guitar chords, seeming to go in and out of tempo as the two parts proceeded in counterpoint to each other. It's a slightly confusing riff, but much more than that, it's catchy. I'm the sort of person who likes to understand the structure and time signatures of music that I'm hearing, but so far I haven't quite been able to figure this part out. And things get even more confusing when Jonsi Birgisson's vocals come in. He begins by singing in the rhythm laid down by the acoustic guitar, but halfway through the first line, slows down to half speed. But the acoustic guitar slows down with him, and this completely changes the way both vocal pattern and guitar riff fit over the tribal drumbeat, which has continued on in the same pattern it established at the beginning of the song (and indeed, keeps going almost throughout). Increasing the tribal feel, underneath the main beat, played on tom-toms, we also hear what sounds like a crowd of people clapping, stomping, and shaking assorted percussion instruments. It's buried really low in the mix, but does a lot to add to the dancing-round-the-campfire feel of this song, the first truly joyous Sigur Ros track I think I've ever heard. After about a minute, the song reaches its chorus, and we finally hear the rest of the band, humming organ and rumbling bass coming in underneath the acoustic guitar and establishing a harmonic base for the rest of the song to sit atop. Bass and keyboard textures occasionally show up on other verses and bridges during the rest of the song, but they're only a consistent presence on the song's choruses. A lot of the non-chorus parts are similar to the intro and first verse in that they consist only of acoustic guitar, vocals, and that ever-present tribal rhythm. Sometimes even the drummer stops playing, leaving the handclaps and percussion instruments to carry it. Often, especially later in the song, these sections incorporate background vocals that take the form of chants, assumedly coming from that same joyously clapping and stomping crowd in the background. The video for this track, released simultaneously with the mp3 on Sigur Ros's website, shows a crowd of naked people frolicking through woods, streams and meadows, and fits perfectly with the sound you hear during those chanted backing vocal parts; the images of the people in that video dancing and rolling through mud are what I picture in my mind when I hear this song.
As soon as I downloaded "Gobbledigook", I began to play it incessantly. I haven't really stopped, either. From a band like Sigur Ros with a reputation for lengthy, epic songwriting, this joyous three-minute pop gem seems to end all too quickly. Furthermore, it's unique--I've tried many times to come up with something else to listen to that fits closely enough with the vibe of this song to segue out of it into playing something else, and nothing quite manages it. Inevitably, I just keep skipping back to the beginning of the track, sometimes playing it over and over for an hour or more before getting tired of it. And actually, I'm not really getting tired of it at all--just finally reaching a point where I've heard enough of it that I can stand to move on to something else. Within a day or less, I'm back to playing "Gobbledigook" over and over again.
I've made a point of bringing this song up to friends of mine who've had no use for Sigur Ros in the past, trying to hype them on their new direction, hoping to encourage them to listen to this song at least once. I haven't really bothered to bring it up to friends of mine who agree with me that Sigur Ros are a pretty great band; I figure all of those people will run across and listen to "Gobbledigook" eventually, and once they hear it, I can't imagine that they won't fall under its spell. No, it's the people who wrote Sigur Ros off years ago that I worry about--I wouldn't want their prejudices and preconceptions based on a completely different sound and era of Sigur Ros to dissuade them from checking out this wonderful song, which seems to me to have a much wider appeal than anything else they've done so far. I'm not sure I'm having that much of an effect, but I will keep trying.
Once I found out that "Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust" (which, for the record, translates from Icelandic as "With A Buzz In Our Ears We Play Endlessly") had leaked in its entirety, I wasted no time in tracking down a copy. The aftermath of my infatuation with "Gobbledigook" had involved my also digging out "Hvarf/Heim", "Takk", and indeed, even "Agaetis Byrjun", which I hadn't heard in years; this was how excited I'd gotten about Sigur Ros in the wake of their brilliant new single. I could only hope that the rest of "Med Sud" would be half as good as "Gobbledigook", and that at least some of it would show further evidence of the new direction they explored on that track. Again, there was a part of me worried that "Gobbledigook" was a fluke, that the rest of the album would be even more ponderous and ethereal than "( )" had been, that my friends who hadn't liked Sigur Ros before would come back to me, having heard the whole album, saying, "Yeah, that one song is pretty good I guess, but the rest of it's just the same old shit." I didn't want to look like an idiot for having gotten so excited.
Well, I got lucky. "Gobbledigook" being the opening track may not have been the best idea, as it's the sort of opening track that can sometimes wreck the rest of an album by overshadowing every song that follows it. I'm of the opinion that it's best to have songs like this "bat cleanup"--i.e. show up fourth in the track listing or thereabouts, giving the album a chance to build up to them. Sigur Ros made a risky decision in starting "Med Sud" with this song, if you ask me. Fortunately for them, they followed it well, with a song similar in tone and almost the equal in quality of "Gobbledigook". "Inni mer syngur vitleysyngur" ("Within me a lunatic sings") bases its melody in piano rather than acoustic guitar, and is propelled by a more conventional uptempo pop-song rhythm, but it follows the example set by "Gobbledigook" in important ways--its vocal and piano melodies are at the forefront of the mix, it keeps things relatively short at four minutes, and it gets stuck in your head easily and refuses to get out. I'm sure if I'd heard this song first out of everything on the album, I'd have become just as enraptured with it as I did with "Gobbledigook". "Inni mer syngur vitleysyngur" doesn't have a strong verse-chorus-bridge sort of structure the way "Gobbledigook" does--it bases its structure around a repeating main verse riff that ebbs and flows, sometimes nearly dissipating and sometimes changing into a brief bridge portion before always returning. It doesn't wear out the listener with its repetition, either; if anything, every time the verse riff returns full strength, it feels like a wave washing over you once again, with all of the beautiful, joyous, and overwhelming connotations of such an image.
The third track, "Godan Daginn" ("Good Day"), is slower and more contemplative, but is still far different from anything Sigur Ros did in the past, having more of a ballad-like feel than a ponderous, epic one. It's followed by "Vid Spilum Endalaust" (one of two songs that could count as a title track), which is a bass-driven track that again has a similar feel to that of "Gobbledigook", though it too is somewhat quieter than the first two tracks here. At this point, we're one third of the way through the album, and the four songs we've heard so far are all of a piece with the new direction Sigur Ros has established with "Gobbledigook." However, things change quite dramatically as the album proceeds into its latter two-thirds.
This is obvious as soon as "Festival", the fifth and longest track (at nine and a half minutes) on "Med Sud", begins. This is the only song on "Med Sud" which is sung in "Hopelandic", the "made-up language" that has become a main feature of many articles written about Sigur Ros, and has evidently become quite the thorn in the band's side. I can understand why--it seems that learning of this whole "made-up language" that Jonsi (sometimes) sings in was a big part of why a lot of my friends ended up not liking Sigur Ros. Mentioning them around these friends often elicits this response: "Oh, that's the band that sings in the made-up language, right? That's some pretentious bullshit." It's unfortunate that there are people out there who write Sigur Ros off in this way, but to some extent its understandable--or it would be, if the actual story behind "Hopelandic" were the same as the perception of it that has been created in the media. Jonsi and co. are obviously tired of this perception, Jon going so far as to call Hopelandic "fucking bullshit" in a recent NPR interview. The truth of the matter is that what has been termed "Hopelandic" is just the nonsense syllables that Jonsi often sings inbetween writing the vocal melody of a song and coming up with lyrics for it. There have been a few occasions in which Jon has decided to leave these wordless vocal melodies as the final vocals for a song--first on the title track to their debut album, "Von", which translates into English as "Hope" and gave the made-up language (which really isn't a language at all) its name, and then on "Olsen Olsen" from "Agaetis Byrjun". It only really became an issue with the release of "( )", an entire album that Jonsi never wrote words for. Many English-language stories on this album carried the erroneous information that Jonsi always sang in Hopelandic, probably due to the fact that he'd done so for their entire new album. Feeling understandably burned by this erroneous information and the backlash it caused, Sigur Ros has avoided Hopelandic on their releases since, and "Festival" is the first new song to use this vocal technique since "( )".
Fittingly enough, "Festival" also brings back the sound of "( )", at least at first. Its quiet, percussionless opening is mostly vocals, with only vague surges, low in the mix, of Jon's former trademark, bowed electric guitar, adding musical backing to these vocals. The song continues this way for four and a half minutes, almost half of its length, creating what is if anything a more ethereal feel than even the quietest songs on "( )", but then, at the 4:30 mark, the bass comes out of nowhere and starts pounding insistently at one note. This buildup, which is more like something from "Takk" than anything that appeared on "( )", continues for the next three minutes, as the guitar swells in volume and is joined by keyboards, pounding drums, and even some stringed classical instruments, all of which build and build until finally reaching a triumphant crescendo, then ending the song with an extended, triumphant finale that sounds like one of the more classically-influenced moments that showed up on "Hvarf/Heim". It's incredibly interesting to hear Sigur Ros do something like this--incorporating different sound and songwriting techniques that they've used over the course of their past few albums into one song on a new album, thereby showing exactly how they've grown as a band, and synthesizing all of this growth into one song that both reflects where they've been and indicates how far they've come.
From here, the rest of the album is definitely quieter, though it is no less varied in style and approach. "Sud I Eyrum" ("Buzz In Ears"), the other possible title track, follows "Festival" with a more ethereal version of what they were doing on "Inni Mer Syngur Vitleysyngur", even incorporating drum machines into its ending section. It is followed by "Ara Batur" ("Row Boat"), another long, quiet track that is mostly vocals and piano and which would have fit well on "Heim". "Illgresi" ("Weeds") is a Jonsi solo song, featuring only acoustic guitar and vocals. The fact that this song fits in so well on "Med Sud" is another indication of how far Sigur Ros have come, considering that three or four years ago no one would have expected them to ever play acoustic guitars on their albums, let alone produce songs that sound like the work of an Icelandic Nick Drake. "Fljotavik", named for a small town in Iceland, and "Straumnes", named for a mountain near Fljotavik, are twinned songs of a sort--"Fljotavik" is a piano-vocal song with a quiet string quartet in the background, based around a simple, pretty melody that again would have fit well on "Heim", while "Straumnes" is an instrumental consisting only of ambient hums that slowly swell and fade. However, as one listens to "Straumnes", it becomes clear that these ambient hums are playing the same melody that "Fljotavik" was based on; it's as if they removed the piano and vocal and kept only the quiet background strings.
Perhaps the most surprising development here comes in the album's final track, "All Alright", which features lyrics in English. A lot of American listeners have no doubt had trouble distinguishing songs sung in the made-up gibberish of "Hopelandic" from the actual Icelandic language, which, as I pointed out earlier, has provided the lyrics for the vast majority of Sigur Ros songs. "All Alright"s English lyrics help those listeners to distinguish that, at least this once, Jonsi is singing actual lyrics. Of course, they are hard to understand, sung as they are in a Scandinavian accent, but it's something, right? This song, perhaps the slowest, quietest ballad on the entire record, is a fitting end for an album that started on such a completely different note, with the joyous uptempo of "Gobbledigook."
I must admit that, a lot of times, when I listen to "Med Sud", I start to tune it out before it reaches its end. I can understand the overarching structure of the album, as it moves from more uptempo and fully-arranged songs down through more ethereal and quieter material until finally ending up with a song that's only barely there (reminiscent in this aspect of "Takk" closer "Heysatan"--by the way, that title is Icelandic for "haystack" and has nothing to do with Anton LaVey's favorite fallen angel). The movement through various moods in a constant direction can be an appealing way to structure a longer work. However, in this case, I feel like they may have gotten to the quieter section of the album a little too quickly and lingered on it a bit too long. It's similar to my problem with the most recent Counting Crows album--while I like a lot of the songs on both albums, and feel that both albums stand among the best work of both bands, I think both could have used a little more of a mix between the uptempo anthems and the quieter, more downbeat tracks. This way, both albums wouldn't feel so heavily frontloaded, and my attention wouldn't wander before they reach their end.
All of that being said, these are still two of my favorite albums of 2008 thus far, and you should definitely check them both out. Especially this Sigur Ros record. Yes, even if you weren't a fan before.
Sigur Ros - Inni mer syngur vitleysyngur
Sigur Ros - Festival
[And, as linked above, see Sigur Ros's website for a free download of "Gobbledigook".]