Album Review: Sigur Ros – Valtari (XL Recordings)

Emily had music nerd appeal.

Well, has, rather, as she’s still alive, just not a part of this writer’s life. Tall and dark-haired, and with a footwear collection that seemingly consists only of boots, Emily said things like, “In college, all I listened to was Sigur Ros. It helped me fall asleep.”

Makes sense, as Sigur Ros songs don’t build so much as drift, the journey ultimately more important than the destination. Often, the voice of singer Jónsi Birgisso melds into the arrangements, his falsetto sounding more like some heretofore unknown string or wind instrument, and the end musical result often regularly fit for the hippest spa in town. That is a compliment, just one that doesn’t do Sigur Ros justice. This is art—especially the latter half of Valtari—that’s otherworldly, the soundtrack to a satellite drifting away in space, provided the galaxy had a record player.

Now back to Emily. She came to mind while listening to Valtari, the Icelandic band’s first studio album of new material since 2008. Some compositions, such as the epic “Var” and the title track, into which the former slinks, don’t really feel like songs at all. They’re worming shape-shifters, and at certain moments are little more than the sound of carefully struck piano keys or delicately balanced wind chimes. At no point, however, does this Sigur Ros collection feel like music to fall asleep to. The record gets spun on many an evening, post-midnight, with only night-lights and a kitten to distract, but Valtari ultimately turns out to be grippingly somber, the patiently space-filling sound of insomnia.

Much of it is vocal-less, and when Birgisso does sing, as on “Ekki m,” his voice is obscured by digital scratches, buried beneath a futuristic turntable. Violin strings are bent and stressed, and appear to just hang in mid-air. Though Birgisso doesn’t sing in English, one will swear—or hope—he’s repeatedly saying the word “love.” It would lend a sense of optimism to the darkness, to the orchestral squirms and stark piano that dominate.

It won’t be easy to discover Birgisso’s lyrical intent, however, as Sigur Ros has created its own language for its vocals. Such pretension is for the best. When the album comes to a close with the seven-plus-minute “Fj,” on which a mournful piano is overtaken by a soft-swelling panic of organic and manufactured noises, it becomes clear that this is music fit for a mystery rather than making a connection.  —Todd Martens


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