Sigur Ros

Agaetis Byrjun (Fat Cat)

Thoughts of birds and whatever cloud my brain. I can see some through the window, which I guess explains it, but mostly I'm thinking that Iceland, I bet, looks nothing like Texas. The birds are getting to my brain through my ears, and they're getting there through my headphones, which are whispering Agaetis Byrjun, the new album by Icelandic quartet Sigur Ros, to me while I race through brownish, windswept rural areas.

Twilight is shaking hands with darkness; as the deal is being made, the train's passing radio antennas blip red in time with the music. In the distance, dimming bedroom lights flash on and off, on and off, on and off, putting what I imagine to be too fine a point on too dull a day. Hulking, alien-looking mountains of jurassic machinery whip past. The sky darkens, then releases small, hesitant drops of rain. Passengers get on and off, on and off, on and off. A voice announces that a fillet of catfish will be served to someone somewhere.

And still the birds cry.

It's hard not to get metaphysical when talking about Sigur Ros, so quietly earth-shifting is their otherworldly din. This is a music not made for unit-shifting and cross-marketing and easy consumption, packaged and sold in bite-sized pieces to audiences in search of the sound of Freddie Prinze Jr.'s heartbeat. It is, to fly in the face of melodrama, the opposite of that: music created to better reach the sky. Singer Jon Por Birgisson, who sings as though he fell from heaven last week, often sounds as though he's already done that. Check the chorus of "Svefn-G-Englar," when he sings words that neither I nor anyone else who doesn't speak Icelandic--or the self-invented language Birgisson calls Hopelandish--understands over a Niagara Falls of glacial guitar and sonar pinging. Or, even better, try not to be swallowed by the enveloping string-section loveliness of "Flugufrelsarinn," the very next track.

Simply put, this is music that risks everything to dip into the womb-like waters of boldfaced romanticism, chucking emotional reserve to embrace wide-eyed wonder, but never (once!) slipping off the cliff into icky treacle or hammy broad-stroked parody. Don't ask me how they do it, because I have no idea. But as the title track reaches its elegiac dénouement, I've no choice but to give in, confident that the beauty is enough. Earth has never looked as extraterrestrial as it does tonight.

 
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