At the risk of making a blatant generalization about one of this generation’s greatest bands, the main draw of a new Sigur Rós record was and still is the music’s uncanny ability to simultaneously put on a show of conspicuous beauty and flummoxing eccentricity. Yes – “Hoppípolla” may have achieved ubiquity thanks to spots in nature documentaries and Academy-nominated film trailers, but there’s still something unorthodox about a song sung in two Scandinavian languages – the band’s native Icelandic, as well as the largely nonsensical Vonlenska – that sneaks its way into the American subconscious. Play this group’s music for a group of middle schoolers in a classroom setting (which I’ve done on numerous occasions), and it’s usually responded to with alternating fits of uncomfortable giggling and unmitigated repulsion. Play it as the soundtrack to images of polar bears traversing theArctic Circle, and you’ve got an enraptured audience.
The last time we heard from the Icelandic quartet on 2008’s Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, longtime fans were led to believe that the band was casting aside its textured soundscapes for a more pop-oriented format. Though far from the mindless dreck that tops some of the charts today, that album’s relative accessibility – by Sigur Rós standards, anyway – suggested the group’s first calculated attempt at mainstream esprit.
Some 4 years later, Sigur Rós looks to remind us all with Valtari that they cannot and will not be pigeonholed. Maybe it was naïve to assume that the giddy nature of Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust and frontman Jónsi’s 2010 solo debut were anything more than ephemeral, but it’s dubious that anyone anticipated the band retreading this far into assuaging ambience. Indeed, Valtari – as its namesake suggests – is a steamroller of a record, a massive and indomitable object that seeks to smooth over the rough patches where past albums like Takk… and () attempted to raze everything in their way.
The only track here that hints at the Sigur Rós of old is “Varúð,” which begins with spare piano chords and Jónsi’s singular falsetto before escalating to a familiar but no less gratifying assault of pulsating drums, bowed guitar, and feedback-drench atmosphere. Otherwise, the band makes you work a little harder. Opening track “Ég Anda” flirts with a harmonic progression similar to that of the Jónsi solo cut “Grow Till Tall,” but it lacks that song’s cathartic coda, opting instead to drift contentedly through six minutes of gently glowing guitar and mallet percussion undulations. “Ekki Múkk” is not much more than swooning string harmonies, melismatic vocal suspensions, and dense piano voicings.
“Dauðalogn” bears some of the evidence of the group’s scrapped plans to assemble a choral album; the song’s angelic milieu may feel like the incidental music to every drama film’s penultimate scene, but it also sets a new standard in unspeakable beauty from an act that had already been synonymous with sublime songcraft.
Though only available to the public for a matter of weeks now, Valtari has been quick to produce its share of detractors, deriding it for a lack of ambition and adventurousness. Though true that the album lacks the fervent surge of nearly every other Sigur Rós record, it’s far from a snoozer. The conspicuous beauty and flummoxing eccentricity of the past haven’t gone anywhere – they’ve just had their edges softened.