Sacred Cows is an occasional series in which NME writers question the critical consensus around revered albums. Here, Emily Mackay wonders if Sigur Ros’ untitled third album, released in 2002, is all it’s cracked up to be
In Danny Boyle’s canyon-core flick 127 Hours, when James Franco’s beleaguered climber, trapped behind an inconvenient boulder with no hope of rescue, eventually hacks his arm off with a dull blade, he emerges dehydrated, delirious and a limb lighter into the Utah wastes to the strains of Sigur Ros’’ ‘Festival’.
For fuck’s sake, soundtrackers, hasn’t the man suffered enough? Is hewing through your own flesh and gristle after five days staring your own desiccated doom in the face not sufficiently unfortunate that you have to make him listen to the world’s most listless, least celebratory music, music that in terms of survival instinct, is the sound of terminally depressed pandas pressing pause on the porn?
Many people seem to find the Icelandic band moving and beautiful, but to me they contrive far too hard at beauty to achieve the spark of life. I could choose any of their albums to rail about, but I’ll go for their third, ‘()’ seeing as it condenses so neatly in one place everything I hate about them. Firstly, there’s the title, a pair of appropriately empty parentheses. How do you say it? Who knows. Oh, the songs have no titles, you say? What a dainty postmodern pavlova it is.
Then there’s the decision to sing in ‘Hopelandic’, an invented ‘language’ of syllables that almost sound comprehensible and intelligent but in fact mean nothing. This democratically allows the listener to supply the interpretations and meanings that Sigur Ros couldn’t be botherered to provide themselves, you see. Death of the author and all that. It reminds me of a friend who shall remain unnamed, who after discovering Antony And The Jonsons (that’s another blog) asked me if I could recommend any similar “clever-sounding” music. It’s so self-aware its painful, cultivating quirks to an unhealthy degree.
But beyond these annoying undergraduate stylings, the thing itself is so infuriating. Sounds as rich and layered, as geologically slow as these need human emotions to stir their lotus-eating lassitude. Belonging to that peculiar class of vocalists beloved for their goblin-child tones (see also: Joanna Newsom, Antony Hegarty, Bianca Casady), the mewlings of Jon Thor Birgisson does little to pierce through the dozy fog of flushes of organ, flutter of piano. You can’t help but think that even if the BBC hadn’t adopted ‘Hoppipolla’ to soundtrack Planet Earth, you’d still associate this music with documentaries or TV idents just by dint of its classy blankness.
Lord, it’s so boring. The first track takes the slowest, most ponderous of post-rock paces, piano keys ambling aimlessly like a bored child detained in the music schoolroom. Voices and strings swell in an overegged ambient chorale ending nowhere.
The second takes field-recording crunches and a foreboding swell before coming in with those inevitable half-pace, deliberately halting drums. The rest all blur into each other in a neutral-toned cloud of organ, string, polite drums, melancholy cetacean rumble. The record is divided into an ‘optimistic’ and ‘pessimistic’ half, but you’d be hard pushed to recognize an emotional shift. I’m not an impatient listener. I don’t get twitchy if there’s not a chorus for over a minute. But I do demand a point, and ‘()’ never either reaches a climax or a depth to make its meanderings worth it. It’s tantric, amniotic, lazy music, basking in artificial serotonin.
Back in the dog-end of the 80s, Portsmouth band The Mild Mannered Janitors penned a song about similarly child-voiced goth warblers and press darlings Cranes, called ‘Fuckin’ Ethereal’. By the time ‘()’ closes its brackets, I’m ready to hack one of my own limbs off just so I can feel awake again, but what I would really rather do is get Crystal Castles to cover ‘Fuckin’ Ethereal’, tie up all the Sigur Ros fans of the world, bundle them in piles on the Cape Canaveral launchpad and then play it the song on loop through the PA they used to do countdowns, until someone gets fucking angry.