Like any Sigur Ros album, listening to Valtari for the first time is like waking from a nap—groggy and un-lucid. All music is a series of patterns: keys, scales, chords, progressions but somehow Sigur Ros consistently avoids such trappings (four years after the band formed in 1994 they added a keyboard player who was the first member to have any formal musical training). Instead of verses and choruses, the band settle into some dream logic who’s music is as prickly and gentle as a shiver running up your spine and whose lyrics come across like an elfin spell (or perhaps the Twin Peaks dwarf gently cooing you to sleep at your bedside while the fever wears off, or continues, gloriously forever). Is it my tin ear or does Icelandic (or the nonsensical language that Jonsi occasionally sings in “Vonlenska” or “Hopelandic”) sound a bit like English played backwards? It would not surprise me if eventually Sigur Ros released a box set of everything they did in reverse wherein we would discover that each song served as a different lentil soup recipe. Or directions to build a giant rainbow.This is where the weakness becomes the strength. It is less ambitious. It is a sidestep. A… Click To Tweet
Sigur Rós – Valtari
This isn’t to suggest that Valtari is some masterpiece or the high point of Sigur Ros’s career. It is neither. I just am not interested in delving into its shortcomings. I can’t quite explain why this album’s exact flaws become more and more endearing. Here’s an attempt anyway: Our Icelandic boys find themselves wading through a slow, slogging syrup throughout the entire album. Their usual crescendos and rhythmic flurries are all forsaken (aside from a brief attempt at a bpm over 60 in the album’s most churning piece “Valou”) for something that seems to amount to an examination of the void. The hypnagogic void. The subliminal void. The vicodin void—this is the shit I would imagine some phenomenal biopic of Michael Jackson would use, in the vein of Terrence Malick, for the scene where he drugs himself into a death-coma while we watch in slow awe as our hero fades away from this life of sound and fury that, pathetic as it reads on paper, has a glorious tinge of the heroic within.
There has been a certain trajectory to Sigur Ros’s albums from 1997’s Von establishing their amorphic ethereal sound through 2008’s Með Suð I Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust which found them trudging their way into a kind of acoustic pop realm that becomes bouncy and melodic. Jonsi’s 2010 solo album Go further clarifies this evolution by focusing his sound, simplifying it. Valtari takes a wild sidestep off of this trajectory. It is interesting that something so hushed and almost lazy can come across as almost wild but in the context of Sigur Ros’s career this is a new wilderness. What was becoming clear and rousing, rhythmic and fierce has now evaporated into an introverted ambience. Valtari is less a band performing together than it is something akin to a symphony warming up while a few kettles whistle with boiling water perfectly on key.
This is where the weakness becomes the strength. It is less ambitious. It is a sidestep. A diversion from a path that was itself a diversion. It is a muscle loosening. The soundtrack to a king’s golden slumber.