You probably didn’t notice, but due to a bureaucratic mix-up, there was no Shortlist Music Prize awarded this year. The “Shorty” was a newish but well-respected award that tried to recognize serious pop and rock bands for doing important new work, regardless of popularity. The main symptom of doing important work was selling less than 500,000 copies of any particular album—a prerequisite for the prize.
The first Shortlist winner, in 2001, was the Icelandic art-rock band Sigur Rós and they were emblematic of everything the judges were looking to reward with their new trophy. Here was a band deeply engrossed in unique aesthetic issues, rabidly exercising its “creative control” by producing odd and beautiful sonic art in a faraway place. Yet simultaneously, they became deeply influential in the mainstream recording industry. Like Radiohead before them, they became a shibboleth for all self-respecting musicheads. Their epic seventy-minute albums of exquisitely slow ambient rock are shamelessly anti-commercial; their CDs are often unmolested by song titles, liner notes, or credits. The band sings in a mixture of Icelandic and nonsense; they play their guitars with horsehair bows. (Sigur Rós play the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis on May 8).
One could speculate on the prospects of a shoe-gazing art band like Sigur Rós by looking at, for example, the slow starvation of Spin magazine and the College Music Journal, the corporate consolidation of alternative weeklies, and how fast what’s cool and credible becomes mainstream and bland. Still, new undergrounds are constantly found deeper down, and there are new markets opening up to them. Free of the expectation of commercial radio celebrity, a band like Sigur Rós can succeed by capturing the attention of chic producers of TV shows, films, and advertisements. Sigur Rós licensed a song to the Wes Anderson movie The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and another to the Cameron Crowe-Tom Cruise flick Vanilla Sky. They’ve written with composer Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson and played with the London Sinfonietta orchestra. They’ve even collaborated with the godheads of art-rock, Radiohead. In short, cool still counts for something.
Sigur Rós formed in Reykjavík in 1994, and once their otherworldy, ethereal, minimalist sound got off the isle of Iceland, the band was quickly tagged as the next big thing out of that country since Björk. Critics loved the massive doses of reverb, organ, and strings, and the tempos that sounded like they were in hibernation. Riding on top of that nearly stationary wave was the thinnest falsetto voice, backtracked, multitracked, and degraded. Singing in a language he called “Hopelandic,” Jonsi Birgisson sounded like a trembling ingénue coming through an unreliable connection. While he sawed at his guitar, keyboardist Kjarri Sveinsson played one or two notes at a time, drummer Ágúst Gunnarson did more noisemaking than beat-keeping, and bassist Goggi Holm seemed not very busy at all. With the first flush of success, the group built their own recording studio in an empty swimming pool out on the Icelandic tundra. No one was surprised.
With his spare and beautiful 1978 recording, Music for Airports, Brian Eno coined the term “ambient music,” a genre that could serve as audio wallpaper, but was supposed to reward scrutiny the way Muzak couldn’t. Sigur Rós may be the first group since Eno to fulfill the promise of his invention—music as uncorrupted art for your ears.
But Sigur Rós’s is an inescapably Nordic interpretation. There is a deeply melancholic vibe in all of its music, a hyperborean sense of isolation and anomie. The first record released overseas, Ágætis Byrjn (1999), was spare and exposed. On their second record, (2002), the flight took on a new drummer (Orri Dyrason) and hit some turbulence and aural bombast. Their latest, Takk, revisits this density but with heavier orchestration—more strings, brass, glockenspiel, flutes, 3/3 time, vocal harmonizations—along with multiple layers of guitar distortion. It’s as if Nordic reserve has turned inside out, and passionately embraced itself. “Takk” means “thanks”—at once a light form of gratitude and a casual parting note, with overtones of finality. It may be the only word the band has ever used that your average English-speaking critic can understand.
On Takk, the sound structures are beginning to resemble commercial anthems and soundtrack epics; there is a lot of bona fide up-tempo rock ’n’ roll drumming. As it has matured, Sigur Rós has gradually abandoned minimalism and clarity for structure and complexity. The end result is that Takk sounds more urgent and impatient than its predecessors, as if the band were trying to make you understand its language by speaking louder and faster.
Listening to Sigur Rós’s albums, one is unmoored from lyrics and their meaning. The lyrics become part of the artifact, rather than a framework to establish its meaning—words as tones, not syntax. The voice is played like a wind instrument, not a percussion instrument. In this way, Sigur Rós is the antipode of hip-hop, the dominant form today. While it is true that a rap has lilt and flow according to the style of the rapper, the genre is inescapably about the words; it is still, at its roots, a form of performance poetry. Yet there’s no alternative but to consider Sigur Rós purely as sound; understanding the lyrics would, on some fundamental level, subvert the experience of their music.
Let’s be frank and admit that this is pure, blindingly white music. If Sigur Rós weren’t so opaque, and if anyone parsed anything malevolent in their music, the band might be accused of representing racial purity, the way troublemakers accused Joy Division in the eighties of being Nazi sympathizers. That’s unfair to both bands, because the “evidence” was circumstantial at best. (The swastika, for example, was a popular artifact with many pre-PC punks.) Still, it’s an interesting comparison. Superficially, Sigur Rós’s funereal packaging and imaging owes much to Factory, Joy Division’s famously artsy record label. At a more profound level, Joy Division appropriated the symbols and signs of World War II, most obviously with its name, which was what Nazis supposedly called the coteries of Jewish women they kept as sex slaves. “Sigur Rós” means “victory rose,” and although the band was named after Jonsi’s younger sister, it is a name that, at least in English translation, is also evocative of a World War II lexicon. On a tour of Dachau once, I was told that SS officers kept Jewish children caged outside in the winter; the cruel effects of exposure led the Nazis to call them their “victory rose garden.”
That’s an irresponsible association to make, but an irresistible one for a self-loathing white critic. Given hip-hop’s ascendance, not just in mainstream music but mainstream culture, it is hard to believe a band can exist that does not exhibit any sign of its influence. And yet here it is: a modern band that is so radically isolated and self-sufficient and uncorrupted that it becomes something of an anthropological curiosity. Maybe this sound is the natural outcome of Iceland’s homogeneous, insular society. Of course, insularity never stopped the English from tampering with the blues, skiffle, reggae, and the like—but then Iceland has never been the colonizer that Britain has. It is no crime to be white, and no misdemeanor to make music for yourself. And it is not entirely surprising that Sigur Rós is most popular among mostly white alt-rock critics and mostly white composers of modern classical music, while they do not register at all with commercial radio programmers and sneaker manufacturers.
Another way to pose this old riddle—whether a band can develop an uninfluenced, sui generis sound—is to consider why Sigur Rós are considered art-rock or alt-rock rather than world music. If these musicians are as strongly defined by their geography as people say they are, they should bear stronger marks of folk influence. Much has been made of their sound being a sort of audible analog for Iceland. No one doubts that place has a huge influence on sound, but musicians tend to study other musicians more than they study landscape. (Indeed, although in interviews Sigur Rós frequently dismiss “geographic determinism,” they have toured with and championed Steindor Andersen, a traditional Icelandic rimur chanter of their acquaintance.) Often by “world music” we mean non-American folk music with some sort of modern corruption, like Sweden’s Väsen, or England’s June Tabor, or the Afro Celt Sound System. Sigur Rós are probably the inverse of that—modern corruption inflected by elements of local folk. It is possible that they represent art-rock as a sort of trailing edge of identity politics, quite literally the last stand of the pale-faced artiste.