There is a long tradition of austere sincerity in Scandinavia. The Vikings were a fairly straightforward people. Modern Scandinavians actually have the congeniality and honesty to live in socialist democracies without slacking off at the cell phone factory or stealing each other’s reindeer. The Scandinavians invented IKEA furniture. They actually believe in the United Nations. They even gave us Legos, the most successful integration of pragmatism and utopianism since the Marshall Plan.
Thus, the Scandinavians can actually make pop music that is passionate and romantic but free of irony. Listening to Sweden’s ABBA, Finland’s Laika and the Cosmonauts, or Iceland’s Bjork is like being transported to a magical pixieland where there is no war, crime, poverty or minorities to oppress — a land like, say, Scandinavia. You see, we folk of the temperate climes cannot even talk about sincerity without resorting to irony. Thor bless Nordic authenticity!
Because of this heritage, Iceland’s Sigur Ros is able to prove that alternative music is not inherently ironic. Sigur Ros — which means “victory rose” and is the name of the lead singer’s baby sister — is unflinchingly sincere. Because of their frank intentions, they can pull off a crime-spree of pretentions: naming their album a symbol roughly like “( )”; refusing to title any of their tracks; having no text anywhere on the disc or jewel box; embedding long gaps of silence into their songs; and encouraging listeners to write their own lyrics and notes on the organically-watermarked blank liner notes. Most dubiously, vocalist Jon Thor Birgisson’s sings in a made-up Icelandic pidgin language he calls “hopelandish.”
Sigur Ros aims for the sublime. And they often achieve this aesthetic, with sparse eight-minute soundscapes that expand and contract with elegance and grace. At its best, ( ) is bleak, beautiful, and deeply moving. Track four rocks with an empowering beat and swells with an inspiring voice. The arresting track seven throbs like a tragic ghost’s heart: cold, ethereal and otherworldly.
Dogmatically reacting against the techno of fellow Icelanders Bjork and Gus Gus, Sigur Ros worships only the organic and romantic. Each orchestration is rooted in strings and keyboard, backed by bow guitars, kettle drums, and Birgisson’s falsetto voice. While many listeners would appreciate this naturalism, I often found it limiting. As one might expect from a band driven by strings and synthesizers, Sigur Ros lapses into sweet sentimentality all too often. To Sigur Ros’ credit, ( ) avoids this tendency more successfully than their previous two releases, Svefn-G-Englar and Agaetis Byrjun.
( ) is original and distinctive, but not far enough from Brit pop to be unique. It falls pretty neatly between Oasis’s Definitely Maybe and Radiohead’s Amnesiac. This is not to say that Sigur Ros is derivative. Radiohead has credited their touring partner Sigur Ros with inspiring their post-OK Computer career turn, and their debt is obvious. But Sigur Ros has a lot to learn from Radiohead as well. The forward-looking fusion of electronic elements, jazz riffs, and noisy art-rock of Radiohead’s Amnesiac has the potential to electrify Sigur Ros’s pure naturalism. If Sigur Ros could artfully integrate Radiohead’s experimentalism with their Scandinavian sincerity, they could accelerate their ascent to emotional candor. The resulting creation could be a watershed in rock.