We had a term for New Age music at the Olsson’s in Alexandria lo those many years ago: “air puddin’,” an inspired sobriquet thought up by some forgotten genius of a record clerk when asked where the Enya CDs could be found. (“Oh, air puddin’? Over there.”) It became a catchall for synthy soundscapes by David Lanz and modern orchestral works with whale-sounds samples, as well as the dreamy, Celtic-tinged tourbillions of Maire Brennan and her imitators. The disdain in which the genre was held by the poorly paid, richly opinionated folks who stock the shelves was always problematic, at least to me—many of the most vocal mockers of New Age were fans of ethereal bands such as the Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance, which any honest devotee would admit mixed up a bit of air puddin’ of their own.
From the moment its second album, 2000’s Agaetis Byrjun, hit U.S. shores, Sigur Ros attracted a major piece of snobby-record-store-clerk market share, ousting the artistically sputtering (read: becoming popular with customers) Radiohead, whose Thom Yorke was nevertheless smitten enough to invite Sigur Ros on its first major tour. The disc was enthusiastically reviewed, invariably with words like “lambent,” “fragile,” and “lepidopterous”; the writers made much of the Icelandic group’s supposed sonic connection to the weird, sparse landscape of its home.
That trend may be viewed as a triumph for folks at the Icelandic tourism authority, in whose best interest it is to reinforce to Americans and Western Europeans the idea that their North Atlantic outpost isn’t just an excellent place to change planes and mope around in sweaters. And if playing up the whole “thin veil between this world and that of the fairy people” angle helps fill Reykjavik hotel rooms, who can blame ’em? It helped that Agaetis Byrjun is the rare ambient record that actually lives up to its fey adjectives, but that’s because instead of relying on great washes of sound onto which listeners can project their own meanings, it boasts actual songs—a trick fellow cognoscenti fave Mogwai has never quite mastered. “Svefn-G-Englar” (the “It’s you-oo” song), “Ny Batteri,” and “Vithrar Vel Til Loftarasa” are air puddin’ you can sing along to. At which point the operational distance between Sigur Ros and Enya gets as thin as that aforementioned veil, even if Ros singer Jonsi Thor Birgisson is allegedly singing in “Hopelandish,” a nonsense tongue of his own invention.
Expectations have been high for the follow-up, recorded in a drained swimming pool outside Reykjavik and kept under tight wraps since. With a pair of parentheses for a title and no song names to speak of (some Web sites list working titles; the band’s official site invites suggestions), Sigur Ros’ latest takes preciousness to a whole new level. And for much of the album, it works beautifully. Track 1 is based around a repeating piano figure and the lyrics “You sadalone the fie/Iso lie.” It swells and builds like Gorecki’s Third, Jonsi’s helium vocals pushing the proceedings skyward. Track 2 picks up the repeating motif, if not the tempo, with lyrics that declare, “You sadalone the fie/You an sigh.” Hopelandish, it seems, is no Klingon.
So it goes for much of the first half of this very long (one hour, 11 minutes) album—a looping arpeggio, thundering chords that modulate and increase in volume somewhere around the six-minute point, gibberish chanted throughout. The reliance on repetition could be seen as lazy soundscaping, the proverbial “soundtrack to an imaginary film”—or it could be the key to blissful perfection. It’s a safe bet that if you like Brian Eno’s Discreet Music or the Spacemen 3’s The Perfect Prescription—well, if that’s the case, you’ve probably bought this record already.
Bassist Georg Holm really comes into his own on (), propelling songs such as the drum-heavy Track 6 and the just plain heavy Track 8, an almost-12-minute-long freakout that will probably blow the doors off a live performance. (It’s also the closest Ros gets to its caustic first LP, Von). By contrast, Track 5 is much quieter, like one of Low’s more brooding numbers with vocals courtesy of two cats having sex. Though the group seems to have eschewed whatever pop sensibility Agaetis
Byrjun had, Track 4 would be the obvious single (if radio played seven-and-a-half-minute songs), because its “Iss aye oh/No fie low” mantra sticks like thick cement.
It’s all terribly lovely, if ultimately meaningless—a nice distinction Pavement made a long career of. Still, as the 10-year-anniversary rerelease of Slanted and Enchanted proved, singing along to “In the Mouth a Desert” is a lasting pleasure, and one suspects () will prove the same. Sometimes light, sweet, and airy is just the thing. CP